Philip K. Dick’s works have been quite popular for film adaptations, starting with Blade Runner, an adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? starring Harrison Ford in 1982. Sadly, Dick died from a stroke four months before the film was released. Total Recall followed in 1990, based of Dick’s story “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale”, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Screamers, based on the short story “Second Variety” was released in 1995, starring Peter Weller. Minority Report, based on the short story of the same name, was released in 2002, starring Tom Cruise. A smaller film, Imposter was released in 2002, starring Gary Sinise and Vincent D’Onofrio, based on a short story of the same name. The Ben Affleck movie Paycheck was released in 2003, continuing the more recent trends to leave the name the same. In 2007, Nicolas Cage starred in Next, a loose adapation of Dick’s short story “The Golden Man”.
Before Next was A Scanner Darkly. While I have a particular fondness for Blade Runner, it’s more clearly an adaptation than Scanner, which stays much closer to the novel. The movie is rotoscoped, each frame was originally shot on film with the cast, including Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder and Rory Cochane.
This is not the first of Richard Linklater’s films to do so, he previously directed A Waking Life, which was done in a similar – albeit simplified – style. The visual style of the film is in a very large part what makes this such a compelling adaptation.
The story follows Bob Arctor/Fred, a junkie/undercover narc undergoing a steady drug-induced dissociate identity disorder. A combination of the drug, Substance D, and his dual roles as dealer and undercover agent cause him to lose his grip on reality. Particularly important is the so called “scramble suit” in which Arctor “cannot be identified by voice, or by even technological voiceprint, or by appearance” as it renders him “like a vague blur and nothing more”.
The breakdown of reality in the story is perfectly suited to the visual style. The rotoscoping of the film acts in many ways like the scramble suit, carefully masking the reality beneath. Both of these effects are of course substituting for the “mors ontologica”, the death of the subject experienced by those addicted to the drug Substance D.
Both the novel and the movie treat an important issue, as relevant in today’s society as it was in 1977. It’s in many ways one of the most humanizing of Dick’s stories, and is clearly based on very personal events in his life. The story is one of my favourites, and I think the film is a very worthy adaptation.