Looking back at Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly

In 2006, Richard Linklater adapted Philip K Dick's A Scanner Darkly for the screen. Ryan looks back at a funny and powerful animated film...

Across a range of novels and short stories, written at a furious rate before his tragic death in 1982, Philip K Dick effectively created his own literary genre. It was no less than his version of science fiction, full of futuristic drugs, paranoia, technology, hidden planes of existence and enigmatic characters.

It was a sad twist of fate that Dick barely got to see the full extent of his fiction’s cultural reach. Ridley Scott was still making Blade Runner when Dick passed away, and that sci-fi touchstone served as an entry point to the author’s work for a broader audience, and hastened the adaptation of other PKD stories, including Total Recall and Minority Report.

Of the adaptations so far, Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly, released in 2006, is arguably the most faithful. It captures the light and shade, the hyperreality, the paranoia, the humour, the tragedy and the grainy, unpredictable texture of Philip K Dick’s writing. It’s a deceptively astute blending of techniques and styles: live-action performance with rotoscoped animation, and the languid rhythms of Linklater’s earlier dramas (Slacker, Dazed And Confused) with the author’s prose.

Linklater had experimented with animation before in the 2001 film Waking Life. Rotoscoping is the painstaking process of hand drawing over live-action, and the director uses it to superb effect in A Scanner Darkly. On a budget of just $8m, the director’s team took Linklater’s digital footage (shot in a brisk 23 days) and took on the lengthy task of rendering it in fluid lines and dreamy splashes of colour. The result is something unique: an animation with the loose, semi-improvised feel of a live-action drama.

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“What does a scanner see?”

Keanu Reaves stars as Bob Arctor, an undercover cop working for a future law enforcement organisation so secretive that even its own employees aren’t allowed to know one another’s true identity. While at work, Bob wears a scramble suit – a bizarre outfit that disguises his appearance in a ‘vague blur’ of apparently random physical fragments – and goes by the assumed name of Fred.

With his psyche already teetering on the brink of collapse after repeated doses of the fictional drug Substance D, Bob is given the absurd task of covertly investigating himself, with sensors – the scanners of the title – placed all over his dilapidated house, monitoring his every movement.

Gradually sinking into a mire of paranoia and Substance D-induced waking dreams, Bob’s investigations and continued addiction lead him to a conclusion that is dark, shattering and inevitable.

Along the way, however, A Scanner Darkly revels in its own kind of bleak humour. Bob’s house is populated by a group of characters even more drug-addled than he is, including the paranoid, insect-obsessed Freck (Rory Cochrane), the slyly psychotic Barris (Robert Downey, Jr., who’s brilliant in the role), the hopelessly clumsy Ernie (an unusually gentle, sweet Woody Harrelson) and twitchy love interest Donna (Winona Ryder).

Philip K Dick’s dialogue has been lifted almost verbatim from his source novel, albeit with much of its 70s hippy slang excised, and the result is by turns surreal, funny and poetic. A scene in which Bob and his housemates discuss a mountain bike is perfectly shot and acted (“Let’s go rescue the orphan gears!”), while these moments of humour are contrasted by Bob’s quietly moving internal monologues.

Keanu Reeves may not be the finest actor of his generation – and there are times in A Scanner Darkly where he merely mumbles his way through the dialogue – but his delivery, as he describes the strange moment which marked the end of his quiet family life and the beginning of his addiction to Substance D, is note perfect:

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“The pain, so unexpected and undeserved, had for some reason cleared away the cobwebs. I realized I didn’t hate the cabinet door, I hated my life… My house, my family, my backyard, my power mower. Nothing would ever change; nothing new could ever be expected. It had to end, and it did. Now in the dark world where I dwell, ugly things, and surprising things, and sometimes little wondrous things, spill out in me constantly, and I can count on nothing.”

“If I’d have known it was harmless, I’d have killed it myself”

Although written in the mid 1970s (and first published in 1977), A Scanner Darkly’s depiction of surveillance technology still seems relevant today. Linklater’s film certainly chimed with the post-9/11 period in which it was made, and given the recent revelations from Edward Snowden, the constant monitoring from shadowy authorities depicted in the film seems, if anything, even less far-fetched than ever.

It’s A Scanner Darkly’s portrait of addiction that really resonates, however. Its sci-fi futuristic setting and use of animation not only makes the difficult subject matter somewhat easier to digest than a downbeat addiction drama set in the present, but also allows Linklater to illustrate PKD’s shifting realities without a seam. It’s difficult to imagine, for example, something like Barris’ transformation into a giant insect could look so natural in a live-action film – here, everything looks unreal, and it’s impossible to see where normality ends and Bob’s hallucinations begin.

Like the book, Linklater’s film is also intelligent enough to sidestep the didactic “just say no” edge often found in movies about drug addiction. Along with Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, A Scanner Darkly depicts both the sweet highs and horrifying troughs of taking drugs. A Scanner Darkly portrays the life of a small group of amphetamine addicts with an unflinching respect for the truth – their path to oblivion is an often blissful one, which only makes its characters’ downward spiral all the more poignant.

Nevertheless, Dick’s original novel was expressly written as what he described as an “anti-dope” book, and also an account – perhaps even an exorcism – of his experiences in the early 70s.

Following the breakup of his fourth marriage to Nancy Hackett in 1972, Dick found himself alone in a four-bedroom house. Sinking into depression, he opened his door to a succession of strangers – addicts, homeless people – who would soon become his friends.

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“I just filled [the house] with street people and I got mixed up with a lot of people who were into drugs. But that was for a period of just about a year. And then I just took amphetamines. I have never ever taken hard drugs. But I was in a position to see what hard drugs did to people, what drugs did to my friends…”

“Your sins will be read to you ceaselessly, in shifts”

For approximately one year, Dick lived a remarkably similar life to the character he’d later create, Bob Arctor. Many of the experiences, the meandering conversations, the hallucinations, the assorted paranoias, were all based on Dick’s memories from this period. Dick fell in love with a younger woman, an addict, who would later become the twitchy, unattainable Donna, inhabited in the film by Winona Ryder.

“Everything in A Scanner Darkly I actually saw,” Dick later said.”I mean, I saw even worse things than I put in A Scanner Darkly. I saw people who were reduced to a point where they couldn’t complete a sentence, they really couldn’t state a sentence. And this was permanent, this was for the rest of their lives. Young people. These were people maybe 18 and 19, and I just saw, you know, it was like a vision of Hell. And I vowed to write a novel about it sometime […] I was in love with a girl who was an addict and I didn’t know she was an addict and it was just pathetic. So I wrote A Scanner Darkly.”

It’s this personal angle that made A Scanner Darkly the most powerful novel Philip K Dick ever wrote. The book was a semi-fictionalised document of a dark period in the author’s life, and through his imagination and wit, he turned those experiences into a great piece of American literature.

In a similar fashion, Richard Linklater had the intelligence to recognise the book’s power, and to retain its light and shade. Both the book and the film show us a group of characters sleepwalking to oblivion. History tells us that Philip K Dick was lucky enough to haul himself out of addiction, and he would enjoy several productive years of life – even marrying again for a fifth time – before dying in March 1982 at the tragically young age of 53. 

In A Scanner Darkly, Dick has his alter-ego Bob Arctor succumb to Substance D. While he remains alive, his personality has crumbled; he’s “sentient but not alive,” in the words of the original novel. Arctor, along with the luckless Freck, are fictional embodiments of the lives Dick saw ruined by addiction.

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A Scanner Darkly ends with a ray of hope: that the future dystopia wrought by Substance D might be ended, that a spark of memory still left in Arctor’s head could be all that’s needed to end the drug’s proliferation. It’s a low-key yet satisfying end to Dick’s thriller plot. But as the final credits roll, we’re suddenly reminded of the real-world experiences that inspired the story.

As in the book, Linklater’s film ends with an afterword written by Dick, this one abridged slightly for the screen. In it, Dick dedicates his book in memory of the 15 friends who had died or were left permanently damaged by addiction. “This has been a story about people who were punished entirely too much for what they did,” the author wrote. “Let them play again, in some other way, and let them be happy.”

A Scanner Darkly is so effective because it blends hallucination with reality. In its final moment, fiction reconnects with reality like a sledgehammer knocking down a brick wall. It’s but one reason why Linklater’s adaptation remains a unique and unforgettable science fiction film – and the most accurate rendering of Philip K Dick’s writing seen so far.

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