A Scanner Darkly  (2006)

Wow, it’s so rare to see a movie based on an interesting or difficult novel that fully respects its source, that eventually one gives up expecting it or even hoping for it.  And after that, encountering one that really does comes as rather a shock.

I consider A Scanner Darkly to be one of Phil Dick’s most important works.  I get the impression that a lot of fans feel otherwise.  But I’ve championed this novel since it first came out.  And I never ever expected it would translate to a film this well.  (Which isn’t to say I feel the film could possibly be an adequate substitute for the book.)

There are some bits of it that had to change with the times — some for the better, some for the worse.  One that arguably goes in the better column is that popular entertainment is a lot more awash with conspiracy than it used to be, and the twist(s) at the end of the novel would be passé in today’s genre film... so they avoided springing any surprise twist, but let us half expect those developments as we go along.  One that goes in the worse column is that the film gets much too overt and explicit with Orwellian fears of a future full of privatized erosion of civil liberties.  This may seem very current... but I say it’s better to leave the issue implicit instead of getting ham-handed about it.

And of course some things had to be telescoped.  That does not mean, however, that so many bits had to be run through the Hollywood Desubtlizer.  The problem of making too heavily explicit what was kept implicit in the book infects several areas.

That said, the biggest weak point is... well, no surprise here: it’s Keanu.  He gives a typically Keanuish performance.  Feh.

What this film is best known for is the unique visual look achieved by rotoscoping everything.  What we’ve got here is a mixture of computer posterization and animation, so hand-drawn bits blend seamlessly into the photographed bits.  This has two results: it makes the film visually distinctive and unique and a conversation piece (sort of like Sin City), and it lets them depict futuristic and hallucinogenic situations with no special effects budget.  Whether the weird look helps or hurts the film is something each viewer will have to decide for themselves.

There are a few bits that may not make sense or have enough context for those who haven’t read the book, but on the whole I think most of it will come through clearly enough.  I would say they might have shortened it a bit too much, though.  The arc of the protagonist’s disintegration doesn’t build up as much sense of horror or pathos as it ought — you don’t feel the long term inexorability of it that much.  But then again, I suppose it’s unlikely that More Keanu would be an effective solution to that problem.  More generally, to really convey the atmosphere of a house full of dopers a la Dick requires a patience for long, slow, inconsequential scenes of inaction.  There’s just not much of that you can fit into the pacing of a feature film.

The rest of the cast is fine.  The standout is Robert Downey Jr., just because he plays the most interesting character — the creepy yet deadpan hilarious Jim Barris.  Winona Ryder is also a plus.

Despite all nits, this is a powerful and, more importanly, a completely unique story.  Nobody else has told a tale quite like this.  Richard Linklater has been very inventive in finding a way to communicate it all by using a very limited and inexpensive filmic palette.  All in all this film is a real accomplishment.  Recommended.