Philip K. Dick was one of the 20th Century’s greatest writers, period. This is understood almost everywhere but in Dick’s own America, where he is pigeonholed in science fiction, considered a ghetto by the literati. Dick was plugged directly into something very powerful; his amphetamine use wasn’t the source of his ideas, but the tool that allowed him, at one point, to midwife eighteen novels in five years. In the end, for twenty hours a day and at 120 words-per-minute, he wrote himself to death.
A Scanner Darkly , one of Dick’s richest and most controlled novels, has been transmuted into a movie by Richard Linklater. As he did in his earlier film Waking Life , Linklater shot the movie on video, nearly as fast as Dick wrote it; then, for a year and a half, a staff of animators painted over the images in the computer. They have created a striking palette of sharp borders and liquid centers that pops off the screen. Objects in the background shift in rhythms of their own, as if the characters are trying to walk a straight line on a listing ship at sea. It’s an inspired match for the tenuous membrane of Dick’s realities.
The Southern California of the film is a paved dumping ground for discarded people. A designer drug called “substance D” — users call it “Death” — floods the streets. Use causes brain damage to one hemisphere; as the other hemisphere tries to compensate, the competition causes hallucinations, delusions, and eventually a disintegration of identity.
Bob Arctor, Keanu Reeves, is a narcotics officer. As a cover, he uses substance D himself. He lives in a run-down house with two other users, a tousled blonde bum played by Woody Harrelson and a wound-up paranoid played by Robert Downey, Jr. We spend a lot of the movie amused by their whacked-out conversations as they freak each other out.
Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. Arctor’s house is riddled with hidden cameras. His job is to monitor the activities of his friends by sneaking off to the police station and surveilling endless hours of them, and himself, babbling away. To preserve his undercover identity, he becomes Officer Fred, wearing a “scramble suit” — a loose jumper with a shroud that covers the head. Seen from the outside, Fred is a blur of millions of randomized and rapidly-changing facial fragments. As substance D erodes him from the inside out, Arctor — which sounds like Actor — forgets that he and Fred are the same person; he is narcing on himself. Linklater’s camera slips under the shroud; Arctor’s suffering face, the shrinking identity behind the fa