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A Scanner Darkly

A Scanner Darkly

By Adam Thomas

Monday May 15, 2006

Scanning Dick

It’s amazing to look at the failure rate of movies made from Philip K. Dick stories. There’s been Paycheck, The Impostor, and even Minority Report, which looked all right, but had that Spielberg vibe – something Dick stories just don’t have. Sure there are the heavyweights like Total Recall and Blade Runner, but while they’re both great films, are more inspired by Dick’s writings than accurate retellings. The problem is that Philip K. Dick doesn’t write action. For Dick, science fiction wasn’t a genre that saw him foretelling so much the technological advances of a space age future, instead he wrote stories focusing on internal action, that is to say, those elements of life, like paranoia, self-doubt, personal detachment and personality confusion that came from characters becoming lost in their own world. While technology does feature in his work, it is not the hovercrafts, space ships or even invisible suits that bind the stories. Instead Dick’s future is one where the irrelevant little man, unwittingly and often unfortunately, finds himself at odds with the powerful and often-malevolent forces that control the flow of information and ultimately shape society.

With the internal nature of his writing, as well as with his increasingly relevant vision of the future, it’s not surprising that filmmakers find his work inspiring, nor is it surprising that in the end they opt for a bigger budget, more conventional approach that has things flying around, blowing up and ending nicely.
With the release of his latest movie, A Scanner Darkly, finally slated for July, Director Richard Linklater might be the first filmmaker to really and most honestly explore Dick’s vision. The film version of Dick’s 1977 novel is the second effort by Linklater to be produced using the rotoscoping technique that he used for his gift of a film Waking Life, (which features a scene of Linklater himself discussing PKD while playing pinball). The central story concerns two men: Bob Arctor, a junkie addicted to the drug only referred to as Substance D, and the undercover drug agent, Agent Fred, who has been assigned to spy and report on the activities of those living in Arctor’s house. Simple. Until you realize that both men are the same man, and that Fred is Arctor, whose chronic use of substance D has resulted in a hemispherical rift in his brain, leaving him incapable of recognizing this duality. The result is a man spying on himself, which in Dick’s world inevitably breeds massive paranoia and distrust. This theme of psychotropic schizophrenia is common in Dick’s work, undoubtedly stemming from his own well-documented struggle with amphetamine addiction. As in Waking Life, a film that explored the philosophical and almost spiritual notions of a waking dream state, Linklater is able to film his work without the production hassles of conventional filmmaking.

With each frame being painstakingly painted, objects are removed, characters float and Waking Life was able to explore and express the limitless possibilities of perspective and reality. The landscapes are fluid and moving, the characters, human but shifting. This type of duality seems tailor made for the world in where reality is entirely a matter of perspective, and even that can not be trusted. With the conventional slew of big budget summer blockbusters rolling our way, it would make me happy if Linklater’s artistic vision of Dick’s personal dystopia manages to reflect Dick’s propensity to blow your mind instead of having to blow shit up.