A Scanner Darkly Review

Anaheim, California, seven years from now. Substance D is the drug of choice. A narcotics agent known only as “Fred” (Keanu Reeves) is working undercover as addict Robert Arctor. As he watches Arctor’s interactions with fellow druggies James Barris (Robert Downey Jr), Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson) and Charles Freck (Rory Cochrane), and his girlfriend Donna (Winona Ryder), he rapidly loses touch with reality, to the point where he no longer realises that the addict he is pursuing is himself…

During Philip K. Dick’s lifetime, while he churned out novels and stories at amphetamine speeds, he was certainly valued by the SF genre audience, but wider recognition eluded him. Since his death in 1982, that wider recognition has been gained, and Dick is regarded as a major writer of the second half of the twentieth century. His work has been adapted for films, but even the best of them - Blade Runner (based on the 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) and Total Recall (based on the short story "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale") – are at some variance from their originals. A faithful adaptation may well have been problematic: as much as I’d like to see a film of The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, to name one of his very best novels, it would likely to be too rich a brew for a mainstream, major-studio audience. But now we have such an adaptation, A Scanner Darkly.

By the time Dick wrote A Scanner Darkly, he was slowing down from the hyper-productivity of the 1960s (eight novels in the years 1964-1968 alone), and his work had become noticeably darker. A Scanner Darkly is a very personal book, the first novel Dick wrote without chemical assistance. Although it shares Dick’s prevalent obsessions with the nature of reality and perception, Scanner is far more character-driven than most of Dick’s novels, with few overtly science-fictional elements apart from Substance D itself and the “scramble suit” Arctor and his fellow narcs wear to conceal their identities from each other.

Richard Linklater is very faithful to his source, bar some editing and some updating of references. He even retains third-person narration for the blackly funny sequence where Freck kills himself and is met by an interdimensional being who spends eternity reading out his sins. “A thousand years later, they had reached the sixth grade, the year he had discovered masturbation.” Linklater also retains Dick’s afterword, where he lists his friends and their fates due to drug use. “Phil” is one of them, with “permanent pancreatic damage”.

Linklater shot the entire film conventionally on digital video, then had a team of animators draw over the results, a technique Linklater had used previously on Waking Life. The results are very effective. In a live-action movie, the scramble suit would no doubt be a CGI effect which would stand out like a sore thumb. When the rest of the film is also animated, it seems all of a piece, a shifting montage of faces, old and young, male and female, and of various ethnicities. Philip K. Dick’s face appears at one point.

A Scanner Darkly certainly won’t be for everyone, being very low key and unreliant on special effects compared to other SF films. The scenes with Arctor, Barris and Luckman work as funny routines and character shading, demonstrating once again that Linklater loves nothing more than to watch and listen to people talk. If you’re less in sympathy, you’ll find these sequences tedious. Although Keanu Reeves will forever be a wooden actor, he’s well used here as the slowly dissociating Arctor. This is Winona Ryder’s best performance in years, and Harrelson, Downey and Cochrane vie with each other to steal every scene they’re in.

Whether this is the best film based on Dick’s work is an good question. Blade Runner and Total Recall certainly have their defenders - the former is well on its way to classic status - but neither of them have a great deal to do with Dick, outside source material and some basic concepts. A Scanner Darkly is the best attempt yet to put Dick’s particular sensibility on the screen.

This has been a story about people who were punished entirely too much for what they did. I loved them all. [...] These were comrades whom I had; they are no better. They remain in my mind, and the enemy will never be forgiven. The "enemy" was their mistake in playing. Let them play again, in some other way, and let them be happy.
- Philip K. Dick

The version under review is the Hong Kong edition, in NTSC format and encoded for Region 3 only. Apart from language and subtitle options, the UK and US editions appear to be identical. After a choice of menu language, the disc begins with a trailer for Lady in the Water.

The feature itself is transferred anamorphically in a ratio of 1.78:1, opened up slightly from the theatrical ratio of 1.85:1. Given the film’s digital origins, this is a difficult transfer to comment on, except to say that it looks exactly as it did in the cinema. Grain is not an issue, nor is shadow detail, but the colours are true and I didn’t spot any undue artefacts.

The soundtrack is Dolby Digital 5.1, either in the original English or a Thai dub. Given that this is an overwhelmingly dialogue-driven film, there aren’t too many opportunities for the soundtrack to impress, though there are directional sounds and ambience frequently to be heard. The dialogue is always clear.

The first extra is an audio commentary. There are many participants here but they do seem to have all been recorded together: Richard Linklater, Keanu Reeves, producer Tommy Pallotta, author and Philip Dick expert Jonathan Lethem and the author’s daughter Isa Dick Hackett. Given the number of participants, it’s inevitable that some will say more than others, and Reeves and Pallotta in particular stay in the background. Much of their conversation is about Philip K. Dick rather than the film. The commentary is available with optional subtitles in Chinese and Thai.

Two featurettes are on the DVD, both in 4:3. One Summer in Austin: The Making of A Scanner Darkly (26:23) takes us behind the scenes of the live-action shoot, and includes archive footage of Dick from 1977.

The Weight of the Line: Animation Tales (20:45) describes the animation process, which interestingly involves many people who had not previously worked on an animation feature before. Teams of animators work on each major character, with an entire section devoted to the realisation of the scramble suit. Anyone interested in the technical side of filmmaking, or of animation in particular, should find this fascinating. The final extra is the theatrical trailer (1:59).

Richard Linklater’s career seems currently to be on a pattern of “one for them, one for me”, alternating quirky indie projects with major-studio work for hire such as The School of Rock. As ever, he’s a director well worth following where he leads. Not everyone will respond to A Scanner Darkly, but if you do you could well like it a lot.

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Last updated: 25/06/2018 22:38:38

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