Friday, August 20, 2010

A Scanner Darkly Film Review

Once again, dear readers, my esteemed blogger companion (Rachel of a Scientist Gone Wordy) and I have ventured into another of our parallel posts where we review and discuss a book at hand, and its film adaptation. She (with the speed reading ability) covers the literary material, and I tackle the celluloid version (since I have no such super-human powers). In this case (like in our first undertaking), it is another of the famed American writer/novelist Philip K. Dick's science fiction stories, A Scanner Darkly (adapted to the screen in 2006). Rachel's review of the 1977 science fiction novel can be found here:

A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick

A brief synopsis of the film: In the not too distant future (this one a mere seven years from now... and counting), the ongoing and decades old War on Drugs (which was started way back during Nixon's presidency) has dragged the country down to a new level. The populace is in the midst of an epidemic involving the illegal and addictive narcotic known as Substance D, while government law enforcement has gone the totalitarian (surveillance-heavy) society route in an effort to eradicate the latest drug scourge. The story follows an undercover narcotics cop, Bob Arctor (code named Fred), who is living with a pair of addicts in an attempt to obtain fresh intel on the dealers higher up the supply chain. However, the cop (now thoroughly addicted to Substance D) has begun to lose his hold on his own identity, who he can trust, and the task at hand.

[spoiler warning: some key elements of the film are revealed in this review]

This movie review has been moved and updated to my current blog, which can be found here.


  1. I really love this film and feel that it is definitely THE most faithful adaptation of PKD's work - not hard considering how badly butchered it has been in the past (TOTAL RECALL, PAYCHECK, etc.) but I still appreciate Linklater's fidelity to the source material right down to the end scrawl listing the casualties of drugs on PKD's friends which I found very moving.

    I also enjoyed the trippy animation which certainly enhanced the paranoia-fueled drug hallucinations of the characters. After the first few minutes you really do settle in and forget about the animation thanks to the strength of the performances. I agree with your assessments of the cast, in particular Ryder, who also surprised me. She has wisely been dabbling in indie films as of late seeing as how she's no longer a box office draw for the studios anymore and I think that's actually made her a better actress. I am really looking forward to her in Darren Aronofsky's new film, BLACK SWAN.

    Anyways, I really enjoyed your review. I'm planning one of my own at some point as well.

  2. I'm very glad I got a chance to take this film in, especially since it is the most faithful to PKD's work. I didn't mention it in the review, but some of the musical soundtrack had a distinct tragic, sad melody to it. It made that end scrawl listing that much more poignant. I always appreciate your take on film, J.D., and I look forward to your examination of this film. Thank you very much, my friend.

    p.s., same here for the Aronofsky film, Black Swan.

  3. This was such a great one to do and I'm so glad Michael and I were able to link up for it. A few questions/comments...

    1. I can't take credit for this suggestion. It was a commenter here (maybe J.D.?) and I'm so glad it was suggested. Funny thing is that I'm a huge sci-fi fan (and PKD fan) and had never heard of it. Doh!

    2. I love that movie poster. Also a great depiction of the story's theme.

    3. I thought Ryder was wonderful, as well. I thought Donna, in general, was a pretty great character and she might be my favorite female character of all of PKD's stories. For some reason this line of her's really resonated, I found it very layered (paraphrasing): "Don't touch me. I do a lot of coke, I have to be really careful." That entire scene is really moving.

    4. Discussions of justice are very much a part of the book but I don't think that theme translated well (or at all?) to the movie. What do you think?

    5. The animation didn't bother me either. I thought it was well done and very good for this type of story. It was amusing to watch familiar actors rendered digitally. I also watched this with Netflix streaming but via our Xbox. Netflix HD streaming comes through really well so I had an excellent picture. (fyi to those who care, the netflix streaming through an xbox - with HD cords - is quite nice)

    6. PKD set this in his not to distant future, too. The book is set in 1992. The world is pretty interesting with guards everywhere (you can't get into the mall compound without a credit card), cephscopes, tricked out cop cars, and way cool surveillance technology AND TAPE DECKS. Awesome!

    7. I've always been of the Traffic school of thought on the War on Drugs (How do you fight a war against your own family?) and this story really spoke to my personal feelings of helplessness when someone you know has a drug problem and the bassackwards way our society deals with it.

    8. I totally agree about the deft social commentary.

    9. The theme of duplicity runs so deep that I was constantly trying to work out if Arctor's friends were really friends (from their perspective). Of the stable, do you think any of them had a true connection with him?

    10. What did you think of the ending? I like its ambiguity but my basic nature definitely makes me take it in the hopeful way rather than the lost cause way.

    11. The movie was definitely good in its own right but I'm going to take a moment to be that person and say you really ought to read the book. There's so much more to this story and those parts aren't easily told via the medium of film. The rest of the story is worth it and just waiting for you in the book.

  4. Are you trying to say that Total Recall was not a perfect rendition of We Can Remember It For You Wholesale? Surely you jest! :)

  5. 1. [slaps forehead] I think you're right! J.D. could well have set this in motion and should get some credit here (hopefully, I doing that as I write this reply).

    2. When I went looking around, this one really called to me.

    3. Great quote and scene. Even covered in rotoscoped imagery, her expression there I found quite touching.

    4. Seems to me, <span>in</span>justice came over strongly in the film. But I wonder, was that as it was presented in the novel? Hmm...

    5. I knew they were now offering other avenues for streaming their content, but it's good to know how good it comes over on an Xbox.

    6. It's interesting to see what new things futurist authors like PKD envision, and what (of their) present day technology they bring with them. IIRC, Richard Matheson did similarly with his landmark novel, I Am Legend. BTW, I still have a cassette tape deck ;) .

    7. Excellent point. There seems to be two trains of thought on how you react to/treat drug abuse. Medically or Punitively (through law enforcement). For decades it's been the latter because the former was estimated to be even more costly (plus, it was deemed weak-willed by certain politicians to not do the latter). After decades of this, and with prisons filling up with those busted in drug offenses (adding the overall annual expenses of the W on D), the latter is proving the costlier (with the ceiling moving ever higher).

    8. Yep.

    9. I find myself, surprisingly, saying Ernie seemed to have a true connection with Arctor.

    10. Agreed. Its ambiguity was the right way to end it. I think Arctor's brain had enough left to be hopeful (even with the tragedy of it all).

    11. I definitely need to read this. The film alone (and our discussion) has be revisiting so much already.

    Thanks very much, Rachel.

  6. As with so many movies, this is one I have not seen. But since Netflix will stream it I may have to give it a try. Thanks, M!

  7. It is definitely worth a look, Naomi. I think I'm going to be doing more streaming of films. Thanks for the comment.

  8. 4. Hmm, interesting. If there are themes of justice would that not mean there are also themes of injustice? I love enter

    Oooh, pickle!!!! I love baseball!

    taining the various shades of meaning in words. But, in this case, I would say the movie focuses more on pointing out injustices while the book focuses more on the price of justice and whether the results can still be considered justice if so much injustice is allowed. (universal theme of society, yes?) And, how much allowed injustice can you have before negating justice?

    6. Props on your tape deck! The only one I still have is in my car. However, I can't get on board with this "playlist" business. I still call it a mix tape. AND I still take great exception to radio dj's talking over songs as I remember meticulously recording songs to make mix tapes. :)

    7. This will remain on my mind as I read The Power of the Dog.

    9. I can see that.

    11. I sure do hope you get a chance to read it.

  9. I look forward to your thoughts after you've finished Don Winslow's The Power of the Dog.

    I'm going to try and read ASD before the year's out (which is moving damn fast).

    Thanks, Rachel.

  10. Sadly, and I'm going to sound really close-minded here my friend [and believe me I try new things from time to time], but your first paragraph really captured the problem I've had all along with this film. 

    Whenever I see that animation, or the TV commercials using the animation, I know it is trademark Linklater and I am almost automatically turned off.  I like anime. I often like different kinds of animation, but I find the Linklater stuff to be uninteresting and I immediately look for the nearest exit. 

    You certainly give me pause with your own well-articulated discoveries.  As much as I loved Dick's Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep and of course Blade Runner I just can't get past those visuals.  I enjoyed Screamers with Peter Weller.  Total Recall was good.  Minority Report very good.  But I almost wish they did animate over the live action.  Clearly, based on your thoughts here it adds to the picture on some level.

    Maybe I still need to see this one.  I'll put it on my list with Paycheck and Impostor.  Thanks as always for the thoughtful coverage here at [not so] Lazy Thoughts my friend.

  11. I certainly understand your hesitancy, SFF. The same thoughts kept me away from the film for years. I may have stayed away a whole lot longer if it weren't for bloggers like J.D. and Rachel that got to finally view it. I do (now) recommend it. If you do get a chance to see, I'd be very much interested in your thoughts afterward. Thanks very much, my friend. I always appreciate your in-depth thoughts and comments.

  12. Heh! Yeah, I know I felt like I was reading the story while watching the film!

    Funny anecdote: David Cronenberg originally was hired to adapt the story and make TOTAL RECALL but when the studio got his script they told him that it was TOO faithful to the source material and that they wanted a film like resembling RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK starring Arnold Schwarzenegger which certainly explains the final result. Oh well...

  13. I will be more than happy to take credit for recommending this film!  ;)

    I am a big fan of Cyberpunk-type films and this one is definitely one of the best. At first it seems like a rather odd fit, Richard Linklater of SLACK and DAZED AND CONFUSED fame, taking on a science fiction film but the material and PKD's approach is actually ideal for Linklater's sensibilities. And he really did an awesome job.

    As for the film's ending, well I took it to mean that Bob/Arctor's brain has been pretty much destroyed/turned to mush and the powers that be have one but hey, that's just me.

  14. The credit (and thanks) should go your way for these posts, J.D. Linklater and this PKD material mix did seem to work well.

    "<span>I am a big fan of Cyberpunk-type films..."</span>

    So, I have to then ask you this: what are your thoughts regarding Johnny Mnemonic? Thanks, my friend.

  15. Yep, that is what we need more of... more unfaithful to the source material films ;) . Thanks, J.D.

  16. From some reason I could never get into this movie.  My friends at work (I work in IT) all raved about it.

  17. Simply awful! I'm a big fan of the original short story and the film just butchers it at every step: casting, the look, the direction, even the soundtrack... bad, bad, bad! It's like that gahd-awful CYBERPUNK album by Billy Idol - the commercialization of the genre to the point where it barely resembles it. Now, a film like Kathryn Bigelow's STRANGE DAYS is a fantastic Cyberpunk film that works right up until the ending where it loses its mind and logic goes out the window but I digress.

    I am majorly bummed that Michael Mann never adapted William Gibson's follow-up to NEUROMANCER, COUNT ZERO for the big screen. He was briefly attached but it never happened!

  18. Welcome, Man of La Book. We seem to share the same work (IT). It's amazing the books that become popular in the tech sector. In my younger days, everyone in that dept. was into Tom Clancy's The Hunt for the Red October (and a bunch of us went to its cinema debut years later). Later, it was the cyber-punk genre. Thank you for stopping by and commenting about the film.

  19. Yeah... it seemed like a great idea that got wholly messed up. I see NEUROMANCER is slated for a 2011 release. I'm going to have to read that, given the rep it's attained, before it hits theaters (then perhaps, COUNT ZERO). Thanks, J.D.

  20. You should definitely check it out. I would be interested in reading your thoughts on it. Originally, video director Chris Cunningham was going to do the NEUROMANCER film which would have been awesome but now they've got the guy who did SPLICE working on it which could be good. He seems to know what he's doing and wants to be faitful to the source material so we shall see. I'm not going to hold my breath as this project has fallen through before... of course, they're now filming an adaptation of ON THE ROAD (finally!) so anything is possible.

  21. A friend of mine doesn't like the movie just for the animation style, too. I didn't give it much thought but it seems that it puts a lot of folks off.

  22. I was disappointed with the film version of the book, the story i.e. In the book Arctor has an existential crisis and is detached from the reality that he is Arctor. In the film this isn't really emphasized and when Hank tells Fred that he is Arctor (near the end) the story becomes vague because of this omission. Also, i thought the film's ending was lazy and completely misinterpreted. - What normally scares away the birds and protects crop?? if you read the words carefully, in that last chapter, then you will realise a much better ending than the one given in the film! :(

  23. Thank you for taking the time to comment and adding your thoughts about the book and how it compared with the film. I'm intrigued about the book's ending even more now. 

  24. For all those who are interested, J.D. published a great review of this film today that's well worth the read:

    A Scanner Darkly

  25. This is yet another of my favourites Michael. I'm a big fan of Philip K. Dick also. He's was one of Sci-fi's finest writers. His philosophical, paranoid ramblings are brilliantly served in this film and Linklater done a great job I wrote a review on this myself not that long ago and mentioned that apparently Terry Gilliam and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman were involved at one point. The film could have been very different had they went ahead. As much as I'm a fan of theirs, I'm very happy it was Linklater that took it forward. The rotoscoping animation is a real treat and a technique that was used in Linklater's earlier existential film "Waking Life". You should check that one out Michael. It's a little gem.

    1. Wow, you came over to the old blog! Yes, PKD was an extraordinary writer and visionary. It's kind of frightening to have see some of his ideas coming true. I was pleasantly surprised with this film. It's been awhile now, so I think I should probably re-watch this one again, and give 'Waking Life' a screening, too. Thanks for reading and the recommendation, Mark.