Thus far, at least eight feature films have been made from stories by Philip K. Dick. Most of them retain very little of what has garnered Dick his devoted readership, and some, like Blade Runner (adapted from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep), have been more or less disowned by many fans. In many ways, A Scanner Darkly, based on a 1977 novel by the same name, was the most likely to satisfy readers. Directed by Richard Linklater (Waking Life), who has a demonstrated respect for Dick’s writing, and featuring a perfect performance by Robert Downy Jr as Barris, this could be just what PKD fans were waiting for.
The novel, about an undercover narcotics agent who becomes a victim of the very “Substance D” he’s trying to trace, is a mind-fuck of impressive magnitude. Bob Arctor is Fred, and Fred is Bob Arctor, but it becomes clear as the book progresses and Bob gets further and further into his role that Fred, who is charged with surveillance of Bob’s house, isn’t aware that he’s watching himself. Peopled with eccentric druggies and their spot-on nonsense dialogue, it’s a memorable read.
It’s a memorable movie, too, and it’s obvious that Linklater’s both read the book and liked it. The rotoscoped animation style, using a process by which real performances are drawn over frame by frame, lends a drug-reality to the world of the film, in that objects seem to come unmoored from their backgrounds and hallucination blends seamlessly with the objective. The “scramble suit” Fred wears to hide his identity and described as a “vague blur” is rendered as a constantly-shifting amalgamation of men, women and children and would have been impossible without animation. The film retains some memorable conversations from the book, such as Bob and his friends attempting to determine what happened to the extra gears on Barris’ 18-speed bike, since they can only count 9. As a portrayal of the drug experience, it does a lot right.
But there’s something missing. The very real loss of perception one experiences from reading the book, and really getting inside Dick/Bob’s head, is not achieved. The plot must be streamlined to make it coherent, and along the way the disorientation so vital to the book’s success gets cut away. At the same time, I truly wonder if anyone who hasn’t read the book will actually get what the movie’s about. So the question becomes, who is this movie for?
The very successful job Robert Downy Jr does is indicative of how this movie could have gone. With this blocky type of animation, acting must either be really subtle and voice-oriented or over the top. Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder are really good at being blank, but that’s not the same as subtle. Everything’s lost when you can’t discern anything from their monotonous delivery or their comic-book faces. Reeves is at his best hanging with his drug-buddies; as Fred, we get no sense of another personality fighting with Bob for supremacy. Perhaps with different casting, Linklater could have done more with the great start he had.
The film’s not a total write off—there are excellent elements, and it’s a great achievement. I wouldn’t warn anyone off seeing it. But if you’re a Dick fan, be prepared to realize the years it took to get this film out weren’t quite worth the wait. If you’re not, see the film for what it is, and please, please pick up one of his books on the way home.