Throwback Thursday: Dystopian Dick—A Scanner Darkly

Throwback Thursday examines films from the past—typically “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important in some aspect.

As mentioned in my previous columns, with CONvergence coming up in July and running with their theme of dystopian visions, I’m delving into the film adaptations of Philip K. Dick. I will stay away from comparisons to his novels and short stories as much as possible and focus specifically on the films themselves.

This week, Richard Linklater’s adaptation of A Scanner Darkly (2006) is on the docket.

Linklater has being toiling on the edges of the establishment his entire career, starting with Slacker and running through Dazed and Confused and his Before series to, most recently, the 12-years-in-the-making Boyhood. He’s made two straight Hollywood films, one a success and one a failure: School of Rock and Bad News Bears, respectively. Outside those two, though, he’s really enjoyed crafting his own films, not so much fixated on strict plot as much as moments. Moments that might or might not define you but that you definitely remember. A Scanner Darkly, based on the Philip K. Dick novel of the same name, is that type of film.

Set in the near future, it centers around a house of drug addicts and dealers who, basically, sit around and talk a lot. But when it’s Woody Harrelson, Robert Downey Jr., Keanu Reeves, and Winona Ryder doing the talking, you get pulled into their conversations. What plot there is deals with Keanu Reeves’s character, Bob Arctor, an undercover agent who tries to infiltrate the supply chain of a dangerous drug—specifically one that causes a split in the two hemispheres of the brain—which has taken over a fifth of the population. Unfortunately, to get inside the gang, Arctor has started taking the drug and is slowly unraveling.


Ryder, Downey Jr., Reeves, and Harrelson

Coming off of directing Waking Life, I can see why Linklater wanted this to be his next project. Both films use rotoscoping, in which animators trace over live-action filmed scenes, and both deal with a disconnect from society, Waking Life in the form of dreams and A Scanner Darkly in the form of heavy drug use. The rotoscoping gives a slightly off feel from real life, which works very well for this theme. In Scanner, it also allows great visuals for the “scramble” suits that all the undercover agents wear when they’re at the police station—the suits are constantly throwing up different faces, bodies, and clothes so that you have no idea who it is you’re really talking to. The animation is a great way of dealing with something that could have cost a lot more in a straight live-action film with digital effects.

Scramble Suit

A scramble suit in action.

This film definitely falls into the category of Philip K. Dick’s work dealing with the theme of the soul, but it takes a slightly different tactic from some of the others: how much of yourself can you lose and still remain yourself? We watch Arctor’s tragic descent as he loses himself while still trying to hold on to his mission. It’s worth noting that this is also one of Dick’s autobiographical stories, written while the author was trying to work through all of his experiences becoming a drug addict and then pushing to get clean. Between this and his VALIS trilogy, it’s the more insightful into his own waking thoughts on life.

We’re always watching

What is real?

Truthfully, I think this film is a hard sell on initial viewing. There’s a lot of talk that goes nowhere . . . which is great if you’re used to Linklater films, but standard audiences will definitely be challenged. As mentioned, there is a plot, but it takes a long while for it to get going. I watched A Scanner Darkly when it was originally released and thought it was an admirable try but a little long. Having just re-watched it for this review and knowing where it was going, I had a much stronger appreciation of the film. It’s definitely not action sci fi—it’s talky sci fi, with the sci fi being very sparingly integrated. Both the direction and acting are solid, and the more I think about it, the higher it ranks in my mind for Dick film adaptations.

Feel free to discuss the film further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.

Check out the previous installments of Dystopian Dick:

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