Most adaptations of novels or short stories by cult science fiction writer Philip K Dick (Paycheck, Minority Report, Total Recall) use his imaginative scenarios for action sequences but sideline his extraordinary philosophical musings. With A Scanner Darkly director Richard Linklater (Before Sunrise, The School of Rock) has directly adapted Dick’s novel from page to screen.
Linklater replicates the paranoid and dreamlike mood of Dick’s highly personal story about drug abuse by using the same animation rotoscoping technique as he did in Waking Life. Keanu Reeves plays Agent Fred who has adopted the alter ego Bob Arctor to infiltrate a group of drug users (Robert Downey Jr. and Woody Harrelson) and their dealer (Winona Ryder). Unfortunately Fred has gotten himself addicted to the deadly Substance D and is now under orders to investigate himself as Arctor.
The ideas underpinning Dick’s novels have always been more important than the actual story. While a film such as Blade Runner successfully adapted Dick’s ideas for the medium of film, A Scanner Darkly is a more literal adaptation that closely reproduces the story from the original novel. Unfortunately the result is laboured and not nearly as coherent, cinematic or fulfilling as it should have been.
Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 267, 2006