Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly, based on the Philip K. Dick novel of the same name, opened July 7 in a handful of North American cities and will expand during July and August. It has been hotly anticipated by the geek intelligentsia and by serious movie fans. But the world has never seen a Philip K. Dick movie before, not really. Oh, sure, a slew of flicks have come out "based on" or "inspired by" various works of fiction written by Dick. The best might approach Blade Runner: smart, philosophical, and more than a bit watered down. The worst are exemplified by Paycheck: they swipe a Dickian concept and replace a confused, contemplative protagonist and existentialism with explosions and an ass-kicking, less-than-thoughtful Hollywood hero. Whether they're excellent as movie entertainments—like Minority Report—or just plain cheesy fun—like Total Recall—they're Dickian only incidentally.
Until now. Linklater's film is a very faithful adaptation of one of Dick's trippiest novels; one considered by many fans and scholars to be his most autobiographical. It's also perhaps his least science fictional work, certainly from today's perspective, thirty years after the novel was published, when many of its speculative elements have come to pass. We may not yet be living in the total surveillance society Dick foresaw in 1977 for his then-future 1994, but we are much closer to it; and his ramped-up war on drugs is very familiar to modern eyes. Instead of a concrete date, the film suggests that its events are occurring "seven years from now," but other than some of the very typical and very necessary kinds of condensing required when prose fiction is transferred to a visual medium, for the first time ever this is very much a Dick novel up on the screen.
Linklater is known for making offbeat, unconventional films—it's unlikely that anyone will go into his Scanner Darkly expecting Minority Report or Total Recall. But the critical response to the film—which, as of this writing in late June, is admittedly still limited—is less than positive. The overall complaint is: "Too much talk and not enough action." But Dick's novel is talky—it's about talking, in many ways: talking at cross-purposes, talking to other people we don't know as well as we think we do, talking to ourselves even when we don't realize we're talking to ourselves. There's plenty debate among film fans whether it's possible to make a truly great film that's "talky," but that's besides the point: a truly Dickian film is going to be talky.
More importantly, a truly Dickian film is also going to be disturbingly off-kilter. The more so for one based on a book that some Dick fans see as the work that comes closest to indicating, perhaps, Dick's own state of mind. Was he an undiagnosed schizophrenic? Did he have religious visions, as he claimed? Had his personality split in two, as he once suggested, making him capable of doing things—such as burgling his own house—that he would first insist another person must have done and later admit that he could have done it himself even if he had no memory of it? The dual character, in Scanner, of junkie Bob Arctor/narcotics cop Fred endures a drug-induced partitioning of consciousness from one man playing two parts into two distinct personalities—Fred comes to a point at which he fails to appreciate that he is narcing on himself.
This recurring Dickian theme of real identity crisis—not the metaphoric "I don't know who I am" but a genuine loss of appreciation for the difference between the dream self and the waking self or the inability to know if one is even human—underlies many of the films adapted from Dick's fiction, but here, it is the overt conflict of the film. What served as a twisty, funhouse-mirror kind of plot twist in, say, Total Recall—is Our Hero Schwarzenegger still lost in his virtual vacation, or is he awake?—one that does unduly vex a protagonist who is all action and little introspection, here is the plot, and it's not a plot that is overly explained. Bob Arctor/Fred's slow fracturing into Bob Arctor and Fred is something left for the audience to understand on its own. Some of the protagonist's internal dialogue—the talking-to-himself that makes up much of the book—arrives onscreen as narration, but not all of it. Not even most of it. And so this particularly Dickian nightmare is even more eerily subtle in the movie than it is in the book. And subtle is not a description that applies to many enormously popular movies.
And the notions that haunted Dick aren't the stuff of those movies, either. Mainstream audiences tend not to be as gripped by intellectual angst as SF readers are (and even among SF readers, Dick commands a niche audience). Whether A Scanner Darkly ends up fascinating at least some moviegoers who aren't already Dick fans may come down to two fascinating aspects of the film. The first is the use of the animation technique of rotoscoping reinvigorated by Linklater—this is his second feature film to be entirely digitally rotoscoped, and it lends an air of unreality to Bob Arctor/Fred's downward spiral into dissolution of the self that may keep some viewers, such as animation fans, riveted long enough by the look of the film to find themselves riveted by its ideas.
The second is the casting of Keanu Reeves as Bob Arctor/Fred, the actor who introduced many a moviegoer to some very Dickian concepts about false identity and the unsteady foundations of reality in the Matrix trilogy. Notoriously underappreciated, Reeves's bone-dry sense of humor is, I think, reflective of how many a cerebral SF reader would confront the things that Neo faces in The Matrix—we wouldn't whoop and yell and cheer: we'd go, well, "Whoa." And A Scanner Darkly is one long, dark, unpleasant, miserable, and yet thoroughly intriguing prompter of "whoa."
If the prospect of more mind-blowing "whoas" draws some fanboys into the theater, and a few of them discover that thinky works just as well without slo-mo martial-arts battles, then I think SF fans can, at least, call A Scanner Darkly a success, whether it becomes one by Hollywood standards or not.