Anaheim, California, the near future. Bob Arctor (Reeves), an addict to the drug Substance D, is actually an undercover cop out to bust the D network. Bob’s bosses, who don’t know his cover story, order him to spy on himself, causing his grip on reality to be shaken by his schizoid way of life.
Well before he popped his first pill, the keyword for Philip K. Dick’s fiction was ‘paranoia’. Like a lot of science-fiction writers who started in the 1950s, Dick looked at the streamlined, post-War miracle of the United States and felt it was crawling with bugs, by which he meant both alien-insect invaders and surveillance devices planted by covert forces. Watch any Twilight Zone rerun for a taste of the times.
Dick, paid by the word and working for pulps, turned to amphetamines to keep him at the typewriter. By the 1970s, the habit had mushroomed into an extensive, mostly tragic drug experience. A Scanner Darkly, written in 1973 but not published until 1977, is his most direct fictional representation of this part of his life. By the time the novel came out, Dick was (mostly) off drugs, but paranoia was so much a part of his worldview that he wouldn’t have been cured of it if he could.
If Dick’s literary personality has been felt in earlier film adaptations, from Blade Runner through Total Recall to Minority Report, it has been almost accidental. His imaginings have been filleted to become the material of star-driven, big effects films he would have despised. The usual approach to Dick has been to take his high-concept ideas (often from minor short stories) and use them to propel a macho leading man through action scenes against a colourful futuristic backdrop. Richard Linklater does something different with A Scanner Darkly. For a start, he is the first director since Ridley Scott to take one of Dick’s major novels as a source; moreover, he might well be the first director ever to feel Dick is worth a faithful adaptation rather than the source for a handful of cool ideas that could be stripped while the rest of the matter got thrown away.
Scanner is almost not a science-fiction novel, though its plot depends on one amusing bit of gadgetry — the ‘scramble suit’ which makes undercover hero ‘Fred’ unrecognisable to his superiors whenever he reports, so that the cops order ‘Fred’ to spy on ‘Bob Arctor’ without (perhaps) realising they are the same person. Linklater uses the rotoscope process he pioneered in Waking Life, treating images to an animated overlay, almost entirely because it’s the only effective way of putting a ‘scramble suit’ onscreen without seeming ridiculous. However, the cartooniness pays off in other drug-related fantasy moments, often involving insects or morphing identities.
Linklater’s adaptation is skilful, blending the late ‘60s with the present, subtly adding the war on terror to the war on drugs, and picking up on Dick’s many prescient insights (like total surveillance of public and private space). He even satisfyingly sorts out the slight fizzle of the book’s last chapters, though this means making the hero’s girlfriend Donna (Winona Ryder) slightly less distinctive a bitch (after a bunch of marriages, Dick tended to write women as monsters or androids). Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr. and Woody Harrelson are all suited by talent, prior screen history and life experience to fit into this world, and they make the free-associating junkie dialogues funny, scary and dumb by turns. Reeves, slipping into what might be an anti-Matrix, is strong as the identity-collapsing Fred/Bob — especially when we (but not he) perceive what his undercover mission really requires.
For Dick fans, this is pure, uncut, grade-A dope. For others, it’s a series of dizzying moments with an overall downer effect. Still, its intelligence makes it near-essential viewing.