I saw A Scanner Darkly on Monday, the 17th of July 2006. It’s a film based on the novel of the same name by legendary cyberpunk genre progenitor Philip K. Dick, dealing with broader social issues of the “War on (some) Drugs” via the narrow perspective of a single very screwed-up undercover narcotics investigator.
To contribute to the audience’s ability to become absorbed — even lost — in the perspective of someone like protagonist Bob Arctor, director Richard Linklater had the entire movie first filmed live-action with its stellar cast of B+ list talent (who, surprisingly, were all excellent in their roles, thus proving that all these on-again off-again actors need to turn out a good performance is a good director), then went on to have the entire thing turned into an animated feature by applying digital rotoscope techniques. The entire film. To give you an idea of what that means, it took six months to shoot all the footage that they needed, but more than a year was spent on the rotoscoping.
The movie was only in limited release at the time (I think it’s in nationwide release as of today, but I’m not certain), so my options were Boulder or Denver to see it. I went with Denver because some of the people who went to see it with me live there. While I was there, I met someone who looks even more like Steve Buscemi than I do — the guy selling tickets at the door of the theater, in fact. The surreality of this moviegoing experience started early. Actually, it may have started in the parking lot when I noticed that the building seemed to be constructed mostly of bricks painted an unreal, eye-wrenching pseudo-purple that hurt my brane.
So, after driving an hour to the theater, meeting my twin, and settling into the theater seats, the movie began. My impression is that it’s a thoroughly surreal experience on par with the writing of PKD in terms of its ability to absorb the audience in its slightly-askew perspective. Actually, the perspective is increasingly askew as the film progresses, which is probably the secret of its ability to absorb the audience: one starts out thinking it’s a little quirky, grows inured to that, and gradually ends up sucked further and further into the surreality of the experience without realizing it so that by the time the film is climaxing one is asking oneself the same questions about what is and isn’t real within the context of the film as the protagonist.
I haven’t read the novel A Scanner Darkly (yet), but I rather suspect from what I’ve seen and what I’ve read of PKD’s other works that, in comparison with a couple of other screen adaptations:
- ASD is far more faithful to the original than Minority Report, both in details and in spirit.
- ASD is notably more faithful to the original than Bladerunner was to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? in the details of the tale.
- Bladerunner was very slightly more faithful to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? in spirit than the movie A Scanner Darkly was to the book.
Overall, it’s a must-see for PKD fans, and I doubt you’ll find it disappointing. Like the director’s cut of Bladerunner, ASD even manages to pull off the hazy sense that you’re not entirely sure how it ended when it’s over that is such a signature trait of PKD’s writing. It’s the sort of uncertainty that prompts thought and contemplation in an attempt to grasp all the implications, but leaves one feeling very satisfied.
At least, that’s the effect if you’re into this sort of thing. If not, you’ll probably react like one reviewer I read online who said “Just because the movie is about people on drugs, I shouldn’t feel like I am on drugs while watching it.” There’s the sign of a viewer who just didn’t get the point at all. I’m going to hazard a guess that he hasn’t read any PKD. He refers to how the director “unfairly springs a twist on us at the end that cheats the audience” because we don’t see it coming and don’t get to “play along”. Er, dude, this isn’t a murder mystery: it’s social commentary, examination of “the human condition”, and immersion in the skewed perspective of the protagonist to get an experiential sense of the whole situation across to the audience. You’re not supposed to play along, you’re supposed to suffer (vicariously) along with the central character of the story and learn something from it all.
. . . and, for the record, there were enough hints in there to get a vague idea of what’s to come. I did, after all (though not very bloody long in advance of it happening). Maybe he’s just too lowbrow a moviegoer to get it. I don’t mean to sound elitist of course — after all, I don’t think this is a case of me being “elite” so much as of him being a dumbass.
The last sentence of that review says “Linklater and Dick fans will love the film, while the rest of us can appreciate its artistic merits and Downey, Jr. on DVD,” firmly placing himself in a group with those who aren’t PKD fans. More to the point, I doubt he’d ever be a Dick fan. I guess the upshot is this:
If you are, or are likely to be (if exposed to his work), a Philip K. Dick fan, you’ll like this movie. If your cerebral cortex isn’t more than a molecule thick, though, maybe you should stick to Nacho Libre for your detective mystery movie of the year.