Dazed and Keanued
by Philip McCarthy
Hollywood has had a line of heroes from Philip K. Dick's novels and short stories. They're action men such as Harrison Ford, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tom Cruise, primal alpha-male types kicking butt in an uncertain world.
On the big screen, Dick's novels, short stories and wildly subversive propositions on drug use and government surveillance have taken about $900 million. The blockbusters Total Recall, Blade Runner and Minority Report have literary pedigrees that germinated in Dick's speed-fuelled head. Even his death 24 years ago hasn't slowed the pace.
Dick's latest story to hit the big screen is A Scanner Darkly, his 1977 saga of bad trips and drug-fuelled paranoia. It bills itself as the most faithful page-to-screen transfer of all.
Its protagonist, Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves), is a lot more dazed and confused than locked and loaded. As an undercover cop in a world having a collective bad trip, he is lucky no one at HQ is asking for a urine sample.
"A lot of [Dick's] stories ended up as a vehicle for a very macho hero when they got to the screen," says Scanner director Richard Linklater. "I think Philip K. Dick might be a bit surprised at that. We've got Keanu as our protagonist and I think we got it right."
A Scanner Darkly shares some chromosomes with Linklater's 2001 film, Waking Life. Both movies have an animated, cartoon-style look to which Linklater seems, well, addicted. The technique involved, rotoscoping, requires five hours of computer time for just one minute of screen time.
Scanner was supposed to come out a year ago, but Linklater has no regrets.
"It seems ideal for this project because Dick is always posing the question, 'What is reality?' " he says. "The rotoscoping technique, in which the action is readily identifiable, plays with reality."
If A Scanner Darkly was ever going to have its second wind, it was going to be now. Its themes could have been lifted straight out of George Bush's US.
The first is the polarising issue of surveillance of its citizens. There's a lot of surveillance going on in the movie and, since most of the characters are on a highly addictive amphetamine-like drug called Substance D, paranoia is rampant.
Substance D is like speed and its symptoms mimic those of America's crisis drug du jour, crystal methamphetamine. Dick had a speed problem of his own during the mid-1970s when he was writing the book.
"The behaviour patterns of people on crystal meth are very similar to the way people behaved in the book while under the influence of Substance D," Linklater says.
A Scanner Darkly kicks off with an eye-popping scene: a junkie (Rory Cochrane) is scratching himself like a man possessed. He thinks he's being attacked by a swarm of nasty little bugs, known in today's jargon as "meth mites".
He's one of the visitors at landlord and secret narc Bob Arctor's place. He shares the place with two other layabouts: motormouth Barris, played to the hilt by Robert Downey jnr, and Woody Harrelson's Luckman.
Arctor is dating a drug dealer, Donna (Winona Ryder), and is also hooked on Substance D.
When Reeves goes to headquarters he wears a "scramble suit", which randomises his facial features at 1000 times a second. That's probably tough for a man undergoing an identity crisis.
Linklater says Dick had his own crisis of confidence.
"He did think his phones were tapped. He thought the government was out to get him. When the Freedom of Information Act came along he thought for sure it would reveal how they'd been after him all these years.
"He got the file and it was kind of empty. He never really registered with the authorities as a threat; he was just some crackpot sci-fi writer. His little world, his thinking, never broke through to them."
A Scanner Darkly
Director Richard Linklater
Stars Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey jnr, Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder
Rated M. Opens Thursday.