You don’t need to be a fanatic about science fiction to know about Philip K. Dick’s work. Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, The Adjustment Bureau and many others are all adaptations of his work. Dick, while paranoid enough to avoid seeking help after a stroke that would lead to his death, was a benefactor of the genre, drafting many elements that we see as commonplace from his imagination. In 2005, Warner Independent Pictures unveiled the then-latest adaptation of his work, a far more literal interpretation than other previous flicks with a fraction of the budget – a mere $8 million – by filmmaker Richard Linklater (Before Sunset, School of Rock, Bernie). As soon as I saw the trailer (below) I wanted in.
As the trailer suggests, 20% of the country’s population are now considered addicts, hooked on a widely available drug called Substance D. The drug (taken as ‘caps’) produces crosstalk in the brain that causes the user’s brain to fight against itself, creating hallucinations that become permanent. Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) lives a dual life as an undercover cop who lives amongst a pool of drug-fueled vagrants. As a cop, he wears a beautifully-rendered ‘scramble suit’ that features a ‘million different fractional representations’ of people so that no one can detect who he is, even his co-workers. It’s here that he looks down onto his club of players. Donna Hawthorne (Winona Ryder) is his partner in a sexless relationship, Luckman (Woody Harrelson) and Freck (Rory Cochrane) are dazed while a pre-Iron Man – and former star of his own drug-fueled adventure – Robert Downey Jr. plays the treacherous and mind-boggling Barris, who will spin entire yarns out of his fractional knowledge.
The film bounces between Arctor’s two lives and it’s not an easy film to keep track of. Six years after its release, I’m still picking up little flecks of foreshadowing that I hadn’t seen before. Keanu Reeves is hardly the best actor, but the way he handles his dual lives while descending into madness is commendable. The film’s fatal flaw comes in revealing most of the film’s mystery in the final ten minutes of the film. Until then, we see Bob Arctor not only weed out his friends, but tolerate their oddness after he slips off the suit. In an incredible sequence in the middle of the film, Arctor’s accelerator fails while Barris and Luckman are in the truck, what follows is an escalating series of events that will demystify the paranoid mind as Barris eventually suggests they sell Arctor’s house. It is madness and so clever that I can’t spoil it here, but it appears to be born straight out of a fevered dream.
The film’s look, while it seems like a gimmick, gives A Scanner Darkly an incredible advantage. For one, it allowed Linklater and his producers the ability to keep the budget incredibly low as each frame was going to be redrawn to remove booms and color correct while it also allowed the artists to create the various drug-enhanced visuals without elaborate CG. Every frame is gorgeous, but there are a few drawbacks. The pieces were put together by illustrators, rather than traditional illustrators, so the animation looks a bit too much like shifting shapes than genuinely animated work. There’s also no 3D representation in the film, so in scenes that require a lot of complex movement, having multiple planes of 2D elements almost made me dizzy when I saw it at The Mayan in Denver.
Production issues involving the animation delayed the film considerably and in a post-mortem, it was revealed that the producers had replaced the animation staff just to keep the project on course and on budget. Originally slated for a September 2005 release, the film made it to a minor release the following July where I saw it with my art school friends (including our very own Cody!). I’d dreamt of a film that was bit darker than what arrived on the screen (like the debut trailer above), but the amount of humor involved was a pleasant surprise. A Scanner Darkly never opened wide or made a huge impression, but it’s one of the best adaptations of Dick’s work to date and an incredible adventure all its own. Watching the film in HD is highly recommended because of the vector artwork that just gets better as it scales up. If you haven’t had a chance to experience it, you owe it to yourself to experience one of the best science fiction films of the past decade.