Terry Gilliam, Steven Soderbergh, Charlie Kaufman and Chris Cunningham are among the gifted filmmakers to have attempted an adaptation of Philip K Dick’s most personal novel — and, for many, his best. That their various efforts all failed is cause for celebration now that we have Richard Linklater’s extraordinary film (produced by Soderbergh and George Clooney), which boasts a cast which reads like a Who’s Who of ageing, engaging Gen X-ers, and an extraordinary animation technique as mutable, unsettling and intangible as the source material.
This was his true master stroke: to employ an upgraded version of Bob Sabiston’s Rotoscope-influenced animation style – in which live-action footage is painted over using sophisticated computers (a technique seen earlier, to lesser effect, in Linklater’s 2001 film Waking Life). With hindsight, it’s impossible to imagine A Scanner Darkly being made using any other method than this graphic-novel-come-to-life watercolour-style animation, which elevates the mundane, deepens the profound, and captures every nuance of performance in an otherworldly, ethereal way. Earlier screenwriters were unable to translate the story’s talky style; difficult for live-action directors, but no problem for Linklater’s visuals, which constantly move, mutate and evolve.
Linklater’s script is scrupulously, surprisingly faithful, following undercover narcotics cop and Substance-D addict Bob Arctor / ‘Fred’ (a post-Matrix Keanu Reeves) as he spies on his doper friends (Robert Downey Jr, Winona Ryder, Woody Harrelson and Rory Cochrane) and later, in a typical phildickian twist, himself. Although written in post-Watergate America, A Scanner Darkly feels more relevant in this post-9/11, post-Patriot Act age of covert surveillance and widespread suspicion. The so-called War on Terror may have usurped the War on Drugs in the government’s attention, and by extension the people’s, but with cocaine and crystal meth use at an all-time high, the drug-related elements of the story remain chillingly pertinent.
Dick holds the dubious distinction of being the most adapted SF author in the history of film, with Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report and Paycheck among them. A Scanner Darkly may not be the best film made from his writings – Blade Runner retains that singular honour – but it is arguably the only one to capture the true spirit of his work, successfully meshing the disparate elements present in his writing, from pitch-black humour to shattering tragedy, and encompassing his recurring themes of multiple and/or subjective realities, split identities, and lost souls.
By turns beguiling, intriguing, confounding and provocative, A Scanner Darkly, like the best of Dick’s work, deserves to be viewed, re-viewed, explored, experienced and enjoyed, time and again.