By Brian Abrams
If Philip K. Dick were alive in 2006, the California author needn't look far for inspiration. The Patriot Act and The War on Drugs would make two picture-perfect centerpieces for any of his Orwellian, chaotic, and panic-driven writings, most of which came out nearly 30 and 40 years ago. Most chilling about his science fiction tales is that, what he had published as fiction back then, we now read in news headlines on a regular basis.
Talk about a foretelling omnibus.
Unfortunately, when it comes to the PKD mind-fuck on celluloid, Hollywood sets up a much milder political stage. The typical studio shenanigans tend to dilute his paranoia through grandiose production design (Blade Runner), action-packed camp (Total Recall), or Tom Cruise’s wardrobe changes (Minority Report). But A Scanner Darkly, the latest PKD yarn that hits theaters this week, might be the exception to the rule.
Richard Linklater’s on-screen adaptation of the 1977 novella is certainly overwhelming with its Rotoscope special effects (tracing over film footage with animation, a la Linklater’s Waking Life), yet it remains true to Scanner’s schizophrenic and hostile qualities. The film is hallucinatory and highly visual. It has a hard comedown but is forgiving enough to allow for a moment or two of clarity afterward.
And Linklater couldn’t have released this project at a more appropriate time. What we experience on-screen is an inch away from reality TV. For that matter, reality itself: the eye in the sky reigns supreme, the authorities show no mercy, junkies desperately drop dimes on one another. Cops are hooked, too, including the double-life of Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves).
During the day Bob narcs for the Anaheim police department. Under the handle “Fred,” he shares intel with fellow detectives, each of them disguised in their own “scramble suit,” a skintight long john that flashes like an electric Rubik’s Cube. In the mirror – and to us – they resemble a figure similar to G.I. Joe’s walking sun visor, Zartan, but to everyone else the incognitos are a bunch of forgettable faces, vacant mugs that the mind can register and ignore. That includes the boys in blue.
The cops each have a similar mission, to eradicate the opiate known as “D” (for “Death”) from the streets and lock up guys and gals who use it. Guys like Bob. Albeit our anti-hero seems safe hiding inside a kaleidoscopic wetsuit all day long, the future of Bob is critical. His D-dependency worsens, and, for the longest time, he has been assigned to bust himself.
After peeling off the scramble wear and clocking out for the day, Bob takes up the couch with his tenants/live-ins. Barris (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Luckman (Woody Harrelson) pop tabs of D like Skittles with their wigged-out neighbors, Freck (Rory Cochrane) and Donna (Winona Ryder). While the five of them get totally fucked up, the fuzz has the house under surveillance. It’s an all-day party, but there’s nothing Dazed and Confused about it.
Bob suffers from insane internal dialogues, playing the blame game for D addiction – is it the pious, oppressive society-at-large or the chemicals themselves? Barris goes schizo over the powers-that-be – is the house bugged, or does Bob work for a counter-terrorist cell? Meanwhile, Freck can’t shake off the hundreds of roaches that crawl all over him.
Scanner provides enough paranoid delusions to make you wanna slap on a tinfoil hat – fine evidence of Linklater’s dedication to the paperback. It’s also a pleasure to see Linklater find the right match for his Rotoscope fetish. Waking Life’s googly, Dadaist palette forced way too much of a flighty, hipster “keep-Austin-weird” vibe; here, the anime has a moodier, noir tone.
Swoops of grays and blues fill the corners of the screen, perfect for your drug-induced detective story. It’s as if Linklater re-imagined and converted to film the same ill-fated future that Philip K. Dick had conceived in 1977. Not that the director had to look far for inspiration, because in our non-fiction world, it feels like Big Brother could tap us on the shoulder at any time.