Neil Vogler's Underappreciated - A Scanner Darkly

A Scanner Darkly

In a new regular column for Garbage File, SF and contemporary fiction author Neil Vogler highlights and champions creative works that he feels have been unjustly overlooked in our collective cultural memories. This week is A Scanner Darkly...

Directed by Richard Linklater, A Scanner Darkly (2006) is an incredible achievement. Mainstream audiences, however, seem to have either never heard of it in the first place, or else forgotten about its existence completely. I think it’s time we talked about why it’s so good, and why you should see it.

We all know Hollywood has been feasting on Philip K. Dick’s work for years now. The man was a storytelling genius, and even better, he was unbelievably prolific, turning out no less than 44 novels, 121 short stories, and 14 short story collections before his untimely death in 1982 at the horribly premature age of 53. When it comes to his work, I tend to think Terry Gilliam said it best: 'For everyone lost in the endlessly multiplicating realities of the modern world, remember: Philip K. Dick got there first.'

Yep, he got there first, he claimed the territory, and then Hollywood came along a lot later and hijacked the bits they liked the look of or, more truthfully, thought they could sell. The results have been … mixed. For every Blade Runner (incidentally, not a faithful adaptation at all) there’s a Paycheck. Or, if you prefer, for every Total Recall (1990) there’s a Total Recall (2012). Hollywood has a track history of pilfering the neat concepts and bold central ideas behind some of Philip K’s most interesting stories and then doing whatever the hell they think will look cool with them. Prior to 2006, nobody seemed too bothered about creating an actual wholesale adaptation of one of his pieces of work. And then Richard Linklater came along.

From the very beginning, Linklater seems intent on giving you something you’ve never seen before: pure Philip K. Dick, ported straight from the page and brought vividly to life on the screen. Whole sections of dialogue are lifted direct from the novel, but there’s much more to it than that. The characters, the atmosphere, the permanent, humming undercurrent of weirdness: everything is right. This movie pulls off a trick that sounds easy, but is actually very difficult to achieve: it accurately replicates the feeling of reading a Philip K. Dick story. Oh, and did I mention the film is animated?

A Scanner Darkly

Shot over a few weeks in April and May of 2004, the film took 18 months to animate using a technique called rotoscoping, where animators trace over every frame to create a unique and unusual look and texture. The technique was used successfully in Linklater’s 2001 movie Waking Life, and the director employs it to great effect in A Scanner Darkly. The rotoscoping lends the film a heightened, unearthly, uncanny-valley type feel, and acts as an important filter in reminding you that yes, you are watching a film about drugs and stoners, and this is hallucinatory cinema. But more on this later…

For the unfamiliar, the plot of A Scanner Darkly follows Bob Arctor (Reeves), a burnt-out thirty-something from Anaheim, California, who staggers from dazed day to dazed day with nothing but his addiction to mysterious drug “Substance D” (aka “Death”) to anchor him. Helping him pass the time are fellow addicts Barris (Robert Downey Jr) and Luckman (Woody Harrelson), who live with him in his rundown house and are either – depending on how he feels at any given moment – good friends and companions who share and help enable his lifestyle, or else horrible parasites feeding off his resources and constantly conspiring behind his back. Arctor’s other main source of human contact is his erstwhile girlfriend Donna (Winona Ryder), another Substance D addict who seems to care for him but is so damaged she has a deep fear of intimacy and can’t bear being touched.

Arctor’s hiding a secret, however; he’s actually an undercover cop, codenamed Fred and ostensibly tasked with tracking down a local supplier of Substance D, and in practice spying on the very people he’s supposed to be close to. He reports to his superiors in a ‘scramble suit’ – a sort of standard-issue full-body camouflage suit that disguises his appearance by projecting the ever-shifting images of millions of people across its surface – so even his coworkers don’t know who he is. Fred’s life is seriously complicated when he’s told that Arctor is now their number one person of interest, and his home has been put under 24-hour surveillance. Fred is to be the one that monitors the scanner feed and reports back his findings.

With Fred/Arctor spying on himself, his sense of identity becomes ever more warped and unclear, as does his sense of purpose. And everything just gets weirder from there.

A Scanner Darkly
Keanu gives a solid and affectingly strung-out performance as a man losing sight of who he is, who he was, and what he’s supposed to be doing with his life. Keanu (and the animators, naturally) imbue Arctor/Fred with a bewildered and quietly horrified quality – here’s a man seemingly living with PTSD caused by exposure to everyday living, and only able to cope by swallowing down handfuls of Substance D pills. Keanu sells the idea that the very nature of reality seems to be mutating before his eyes, and as viewers, this sense of degradation is amplified by the rotoscopic animation, which at times takes on a seasick, unnaturally shaky quality. It’s a perfect visual match for the story; we’re encouraged at every turn to view the proceedings through a distorted, not entirely-reliable lens, and that’s perhaps not a bad description of Keanu’s character either. 

Elsewhere, Robert Downey Jr. reminds you that there’s almost no-one better at playing an insufferable asshole. As Barris he’s arch, he has verbal diarrhea, he’s sneaky, sinister, permanently wired, but emotionally cold. He’s dangerous, because he’s obviously intelligent, but that intelligence is filtered through his serious addiction to Substance D, so he appears to oscillate between being the scariest, smartest guy in the room, and the biggest, most deluded idiot. Either way, he’s a liability, and enormous fun to watch.

Woody Harrelson is also good value as the other stoner living in Arctor’s house, though his character seldom rises above the status of comic relief. In 2006 this was great Woody, but I’d argue that since then we’ve seen him give better performances in superior roles, and with the benefit of hindsight in 2015 his performance seems fun, but lightweight. Admittedly, the script gives him less to do than the others, but I personally feel we could have done with a little more meat on his character’s bones.

Winona Ryder is also very good as Arctor’s intimacy-averse love interest, and makes you wonder why we don’t see more of her in movies these days (surely she’s due a renaissance?). There’s a devious, manipulative quality to her character that doesn’t make sense until the end of the movie, but she hides it all behind defensiveness and implied vulnerability. It’s a character that feels very real. 

A Scanner Darkly

Rory Cochrane also shows up as the film’s doomed-from-the-moment-you-meet-him addict Charles Freck, and he gives good freakout. He’s unhinged and wild-eyed, and it’s implied that he’s what the others may turn into, should they up their drug consumption. His attempted suicide is also one of the very best, most visually striking, and unmistakably Philip K. Dick scenes in the movie.

In the end, Linklater’s film with its authentic representation of Dick’s authorial voice perhaps offers us a clue as to why Hollywood has never been interested in making straight adaptations of the writer’s work. These are characters prone to long ruminations about the state of the world and the state of existence in general – paranoid, wordy, suspicious, needy, and intellectually aware, even if they’re all trapped inside one drug-induced delusion after another, unable to escape from the destructive patterns of behaviour they’ve established. As such, they’re not attractive characters; you don’t want to be anyone of these people. Neither does the story contain any serious elements of action; there are no thrillingly choreographed bareknuckle fights or gun fu setpieces awaiting you in this movie. Dick was never really interested in writing action – his books are psychological and ideological thrillers, simmering slices of human insight hiding in imaginative, character-driven, high-concept prose, and therefore they don’t lend themselves to the Hollywood action blockbuster template. Dick twists reality, he plays with your perceptions, and he effortlessly turns stories on their heads, often making you wonder if you really read what you thought you just read. It’s hard to translate the feeling of reading a good Philip K. Dick novel into a cinematic experience, but Linklater nails it.

If there’s a criticism I can level at the movie, it’s probably in the pacing. There are moments where the movie feels as if it’s meandering a little, and the editing at times comes across as slightly choppy. But these are very minor issues, and your mileage will vary.

I’d be remiss not to mention the soundtrack too, which uses music by Graham Reynolds and Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and is an important part of what makes the movie work so well. The music seldom allows you to fully relax during the film; instead it sort of seethes and mutates away in the background, jarring you occasionally, keeping you on the edge. It’s an atmospheric, minimalist, and genuinely strange score, and I love it. Alas, the music for A Scanner Darkly seems to be as underappreciated as the movie itself.

If you’re a Philip K. Dick fan but you’ve somehow failed to catch this film, I urge you to seek it out right away. Likewise, if you were vaguely aware of this movie’s existence but put off by the presence of one of the stars or by the animation angle, cast your expectations aside and give it a watch. A Scanner Darkly had a limited release in 2006 and didn’t make much money, despite all the movie star wattage on display and despite having George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh on board as executive producers. In more recent years it’s found a niche audience on DVD and Blu Ray, but it deserves to be far more widely known and celebrated.

The final scenes of the movie featuring Keanu’s burnt-out and doomed character are moving and tragic, and the film ends as the novel does, with the work being dedicated to a long and sobering list of Philip K. Dick’s friends and associates who were all lost or damaged as a direct result of their drug taking. The movie, however, adds the author’s name to the list. It’s a compelling and very fitting way to end the film, and reminds you that what you’ve just seen is his, through and through. A Scanner Darkly is one of Philip K. Dick’s best novels, and I don’t think he could have asked for a better adaptation of his work than Linklater’s deeply undervalued film.

Image - IMDb.

Neil's Author page can be found here.

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