Film Review: A Scanner Darkly

Philip K. Dick holds the dubious (and regrettably posthumous) honour of being a science fiction writer who has had a great many of his works converted into major films. As with all the products of Hollywood, some of these conversions have been less than faithful. Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly, however, is widely reported to be very close to the mark.

At this point I must confess that I’ve never read A Scanner Darkly – and I must also say that it is my intention to do so as soon as possible. This was an excellent movie, one that reaffirmed the possibility of modern cinema not being an utter sack of sensationalist crap. But now, a caveat:

I’ve never been a big movie fan, and I quit watching television over six years ago, largely due to disillusionment with the format in general. With this in mind, I would ask you to not consider this to be a critique of the film [which would require a far better knowledge of the genre than I possess] but instead to see it as an assessment of its entertainment value to the rare-or-occasional theatre-goer – one with a science fictional palate. I’m not going to offer a dissection of it. This is just a report of the experience.

So firstly, the visual aspect; the rotoscoping, which allegedly required 500 man-hours of work for each minute of finished film. It works, and works brilliantly. Filmed normally, this story would fall rather flat, and the never-quite-real sensation of the visual field adds to the dislocation of the storyline, enhancing the overall sense of unreality and chiming with the drug-user’s sense of being in a world where nothing is certain, or arguably even real.

Now, the story. It’s everything one would expect from a late-phase PKD tale, in that it focuses on questions of identity, self-awareness, religion, drug-induced states of dissociation, and a general sense of living in a world that is out of control. As a well deserved kick-in-the-teeth for Hollywood, it’s excellent to see a science fiction movie that has no aliens, no space battles, no hyperbole and no need for any of them. Arguably the only real extrapolative ideas in the story are the scramble-suits and ‘Substance D’ itself.

Lastly, as a ‘movie-going experience’. Maybe it’s just my lack of desensitisation to cinematic spectacle, or maybe I just had my preconceived expectations fulfilled in some self-pre-hypnotic fashion – but this film completely twisted my head inside out. I expect this is largely down to the story – every PKD I’ve read does something similar, the man had a knack of asking the most profound questions that the human mind can ask about itself and the world, and then encapsulating them in darkly clever little stories with an sf-nal flavour.

The dissociative effects of the plot, combined with the compellingly hyper-real visual component, left me completely reeling. I was very glad I’d not read the book before hand, because it meant I had the rare opportunity to watch a film all the way through without being able to tell exactly how it was going to end. Granted, some of the thread connections were obvious (it just had to be NewPath, really), but the secret identity of Hank had me completely off down the wrong track.

The dedication at the end, copied from the novel, is a heart-wrenching little end-piece, and serves only to enhance and deepen the mythos of Dick as a man who lived his stories – or maybe, whose stories lived him.

I went to the pub for a few beers after the film, and found myself unable to hold down a decent conversation because I was too engaged in thinking about what I’d just seen. That’s the sort of effect a really good book will have on me – indeed, it’s the main reason I read books, period. To get that same kick from a film is a pleasure that I can’t remember experiencing since I went to see The Matrix.

(The bonus with A Scanner Darkly, of course, is that there are unlikely to be two dreadful sequels to spoil it.)

I don’t believe in marks-out-of-five ratings in reviews, so I’ll just rate A Scanner Darkly as ‘well worth watching’.

2 thoughts on “Film Review: A Scanner Darkly”

  1. The “honor” is more dubious than you think.

    Check out this page on wired listing movies made from PKD novels; the table compares what PKD or his estate got paid versus what the movie grossed.

    $291,000,000 versus $2,050.

    BTW, A Scanner Darkly is really very cool. I happened to see it with a friend who had basically lived that same life in the sixties, and he thought it was pretty true to life as well. No, really.

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