And how beautiful. Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey and Woody Harrelson riffing together in the car or on the couch, it’s like the stoner version of the Three Stooges crossed with Cheech and Chong. They’re hilarious in the scene where Harrelson and Downey are threatening each other with rock and hammer, and the bit where they’re scrutinizing the carburetor at the side of the highway? Comedy gold!
And when Rory Cochrane attempts suicide with a handful of downers and a bottle of good Merlot? And is interrupted by an Argus-eyed scold with an endless list of his sins? Great stuff. You might was well live, Mr. Freck, it can’t be any worse than this.
I hadn't seen “A Scanner Darkly” in a long while, and I’d forgotten how lovely the rotoscoped images are. Seriously. Check it out! Los Angeles is transmuted into grimy yet beautiful pulsating painting. Keanu Reeves has a decaying ranch house in the suburbs, one that would be just depressing and repellent shown in “real life”. But animated, it’s a sort of wonderland of grubby decay, the strewn trash and overgrown yard transmuted into something rich and strange.
Philip K. Dick could be called the poet of paranoia. Except that frankly, Dick was no poet, not even a great writer. Few have ever had as many ideas per page, even fewer had his strange insights of the world of the drugged and mentally damaged. But his prose was clunky and his characters barely sketched in. What Dick excelled at was finding the spaces between our reality and something disturbing and visionary behind it.
Richard Linklater’s movie is the single best realization of a Dick story I can think of. And it’s a great story for the first three quarters, scary and funny and intensely paranoid. It was a brilliant choice to film it in this lurid animation. Another filmmaker, especially a more “modern” one, would do the scramble suits in some overly literal CGI, a “vague blur”. Linklater’s vision of the constantly shifting, shuffling faces and clothing presented by the camouflage is perfect. Better than Dick’s description, really.
And could anyone have been a better pick to perform Robert Arctor than Keanu Reeves? His disconnected otherworldly face gives him a head start portraying a man whose left and right hemispheres aren’t on speaking terms. Behind his scramble suit’s mask, Reeves goes from alarm to terror to stupefaction in flickering animated expressions that show emotions John Wick has never heard of, let alone experienced. One of his better early roles.
Great casting choices all around, Harrelson and Downey and Winona Ryder. If only real world tweakers were so colorful and engaging, particularly Downey’s weasel attempts at ratting out his roommates while failing so ridiculously that it’s adorable. The movie’s one nod to sex is distanced from anything even vaguely erotic not just because of the animation but more by the off-putting creepiness of Reeves watching himself on his screens while never sure if it is himself he’s watching, or who he’s in bed with or if any of it actually happened. Aren’t drugs supposed to be fun, at least to start with? Substance D doesn’t look like a good time for anybody.
The last part of “A Scanner Darkly” where we get a peek behind the curtain of the shared delusion we call reality, that’s where the story becomes a little too conventional. A terrible conspiracy is revealed, sure, but after the kaleidoscopic look into the minds of those on Substance D, it’s too ordinary. Philip K. Dick fans who’ve read “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch” or “Martian Time Slip” will know what I mean; the deeper you go down a PKD rabbit hole, when more is explained, the less reliable your knowledge and senses become. For that matter, I think it’d be a great idea to set up a Go Fund Me to raise money so Linklater could film “Palmer Eldritch”. Maybe a miniseries, to give the vast sweep of paranoid lunacy room to breathe. Or “Time Slip”. Or both.
I’ve seen just about every PKD story that’s made it to film, from the ridiculous but funny “Total Recall” to the beautiful but unnecessary “Blade Runner 2049”. It looked nice, is all I can say for that one.
Rutger Hauer and astonishing visuals saved Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” from being a pretty meh adaptation of one of Dick’s so-so books. “Minority Report” was fun, fast moving, full of ideas and Tom Cruise’s nose. Decent. “Total Recall”, the first one, was fun in a triple-breasted dopey Schwarznegger sort of way. The humorless and ugly 2012 remake was execrable.
Even Matt Damon couldn’t save the dull-as-dirt “Adjustment Bureau”. Amazon’s “The Man in the High Castle” manages to entirely miss the point of Dick’s book while indulging in flashy photogenic Nazi stuff. Of them all, “A Scanner Darkly” is the one I think the master would have approved of, if you could have caught him in a sober lucid moment. Just about every PDK story is about the ways in which reality ain't what it used to be, if it was ever real at all; “A Scanner Darkly” plays with his favorite theme in a striking and entertaining way.