For a long time, it looked as if nobody in Hollywood would ever get Philip K. Dick right. It isn’t as if films adapted from his many works haven’t been critically praised (“Blade Runner”) or box office successes (“Minority Report,” “Total Recall”), but it seemed no one was capable of capturing Dick’s common themes of subjective reality and uncertain identity. Directors like Ridley Scott and Steven Spielberg (and John Woo) compromised by trading in the paranoia, alienation, and political commentary for boffo special effects and big name acting talent. The end results, while often pretty to look at and really loud, scarcely did justice to Dick’s original visions.
Now we have “A Scanner Darkly,” an adaptation of Dick’s 1977 semi-autobiographical novel about drug abuse in a near-future police state. Written and directed by Richard Linklater, the movie stars Keanu Reeves as the movie’s ill-fated protagonist: a drug addict named Bob Arctor who also just happens to be a cop known as “Fred,” assigned to keep Bob’s house under surveillance. Fred has become addicted to Substance D, the psychoactive future drug of choice, in an unintended (?) by-product of his investigation. One consequence of this dependence is the gradual separation between his two personalities. As a result, Fred increasingly comes to view Bob Arctor as a distinct individual, while Bob’s awareness of his alter-ego’s police activities becomes more and more linked to the delusional conspiracy theorizing of his housemates.
Linklater’s decision to assemble a supporting cast widely known for their own drug connections (with the possible exception of Cochrane, who played the stoner Slater in “Dazed and Confused”) should reek of stunt casting, but doesn’t. Downey Jr. especially does well with the role of wannabe informant James Barris, and his talent is apparent even under the layers of Rotoscoping. Winona Ryder’s Donna is believable as the low-level dealer Bob is in love with but who Fred must set up to get at her superiors, and Woody Harrelson does well in the supporting role of perpetually goofy roommate Ernie Luckman, though for all we know this is how Harrelson acts every day. In fact, I’d bet money on it.
Linklater has kept a good deal of Dick’s original dialogue intact, though thankfully updating it to eliminate the novel’s annoyingly hippie patois. Admittedly, it can become a little annoying listening to Downey and Harrelson theorize about the mysterious “they” who constantly seek to sabotage their lives, but it serves a larger purpose. Namely, to provide a framework for Bob/Fred’s steady descent into unreality. Unfortunately, these scenes can be reminiscent of “Slacker.” Such is Linklater’s legacy, I guess.
And I’ve given up trying to criticize Keanu Reeves. The guy is Teflon. Asking him to emote invariably brings unfavorable comparisons to a block of wood, but the guy does possess an unfailing ability to project bewilderment. And so he excels playing characters utterly removed from their element or coping with the inexplicable (witness the success of the “Matrix” and the “Bill and Ted” movies). Here, his character’s growing paranoia and confusion work in his favor, so his near-constant state of confusion makes sense and doesn’t actively take us out of the film.
On a personal note, I’m a huge fan of Philip K. Dick’s work and have been for a long time. And while I still don’t know if there will ever be a truly faithful adaptation, Linklater has produced a noble effort. “A Scanner Darkly” isn’t as dark or sinister as its source material, but it comes closer than any other filmed attempts to this point. It may only be a decent movie, but it’s a pretty fine PKD adaptation.