Hollywood doesn't know Dick
Science fiction's mad genius finally gets a fair shake. But will anyone care?
A funny thing happened to Philip K. Dick on the way to posthumously becoming one of Hollywood’s most bankable authors: His name became synonymous with straight-faced, big-budget, action-oriented paranoid thrillers like Blade Runner and Minority Report.
Granted, cosmic paranoia permeates just about everything Dick wrote. But ask any Dickhead (as fervent Dick fans call themselves) about the thriller part and he’ll tell you that there are few physical heroics or explosions in Dick’s fiction. The typical Dick protagonist is a downtrodden schmuck trying to cope with the fact that the universe is falling apart around his ears, and his primary response is to swap a whole lot of crazy bullshit about the situation with other, equally garrulous characters.
Nobody takes a universe apart better than Dick, and Hollywood has been mining his stories for their ontological fireworks but stripping them of most other Dickian attributes, including the metaphysical chat and the absurd technologies that Dick would dream up but never quite fully explain.
For example, the characters in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (the novel that inspired Blade Runner) preprogram their daily emotions with an appliance called the Penfield Mood Organ. At one point android-hunting cop Rick Deckard has a fight with his wife over the fact that she’s scheduled herself for “a six-hour self-accusatory depression.” Deckard suggests that she switch to “the desire to watch TV, no matter what’s on,” then ends up adjusting her mood to “pleased acknowledgment of husband’s superior wisdom in all matters.” (Nobody ever called Dick a feminist.)
When director Richard Linklater (Slacker, The School of Rock) undertook the adaptation of A Scanner Darkly for the screen, he promised Dick’s two daughters (who control their father’s estate) that he would be scrupulously faithful to the book, and he has indeed delivered a film that’s miraculously true to the novel’s nightmarish vibe.
Scanner, which Dick based on his own experiences as a speed freak in Marin County, California, in the early ’70s, is set in a near future where addiction to a new drug called Substance D is pandemic. Dick’s protagonist, played with suitable blankness by Keanu Reeves, is an undercover narcotics officer named Fred posing as a doper named Bob Arctor. For purposes of security (and Dickian absurdity), Fred’s own superiors do not know that Fred is Arctor, and so order him to carry out electronic surveillance on himself. But as Fred’s investigation into Arctor’s life progresses, so does the damage that Substance D is doing to his brain, to the point that he eventually no longer knows that he’s Arctor.
From a Dickhead’s perspective, Linklater has done everything right. The overlay of rotoscope animation that Linklater previously used in Waking Life serves the hallucinatory atmosphere of Scanner but never tips over into psychedelic tedium. Linklater’s screenplay preserves and in some cases even improves upon the novel’s stoned, maddeningly circular dialogue. And for once a flaky Dickian technology has made it to the screen in the form of the “scramble suit,” a computerized membrane upon whose surface flicker randomized combinations of millions of people’s facial and bodily features. The suit supposedly enables narcs like Fred to conceal their identities whenever they need to break cover, though of course its real purpose is to metaphorically paraphrase Dick’s obsession with the instability of human identity.
Unfortunately, it looks like a mass audience for uncut Dick might not exist. Dickheads have been predicting an imminent groundswell of popularity for their favorite author since the early ’70s, but the only place Dick has ever managed to transcend cult status is France, where he’s worshipped as a literary god. And the critical response to Linklater’s excellent film has been largely negative, with most complaints relating to the very things that make it a true translation of Dick’s idiosyncratic vision, i.e., it’s too talky and doesn’t make much sense.
It’ll be a shame if the film doesn’t find an audience, because cinematic integrity of this kind is too often its own reward. But at least Linklater can count on it doing well in France.
A Scanner Darkly opens Friday 7.