I meant to mention earlier that I went with Kerry, Ezra, Spack, & Yglesias to check out A Scanner Darkly last week. (You can watch the first 24 minutes online.) It is, as Peter Suderman notes in his NRO review, an extraordinarily faithful adaptation: It’s up there with Terry Gilliam’s take on “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” in terms of fidelity in the text, though it does, mercifully, spare us Philip K. Dick’s heavy-handed use of far-out-groovy-hepcat lingo, which was probably dated even when the book first appeared. The atmosphere of paranoid mutual suspicion in a surveillance state, on the other hand, feels more relevant than ever.
Speaking of paranoids, the best thing about the movie by far is Robert Downey Jr’s manic, logorrheic turn as the erudite but unhinged Barris… though insofar as they’re portraying dope fiends, I’m not sure how much of the credit here is due to Downey or co-star Woody Harrelson’s acting skills, as such. (On a totally frivolous note: Does anyone know where I can find that olive-grey eye-in-the-pyramid T-shirt he’s wearing in the image on the right?)
A couple random observations: Richard Linklater’s got a weird obsession with angry prophets barking into megaphones: Both Slacker and Waking Life feature angry revolutionaries ranting over car-mounted speakers. Here, he adds a basically unnecessary scene that I’m pretty sure wasn’t in the book, in which an apparent ex-cop begins screaming about a burgeoning police state (in case, you know, the constant surveillance of everyone and everything up until that point hadn’t clued you in) and is quickly tasered and hustled off. I think perhaps Linklater’s gotten so accustomed to doing movies centered on philosophizing talking heads that someone needs to remind him not every theme in a film needs to be explicitly stated in manifesto form. That’s why they call it subtext.
It’s also sort of impressive how effective an anti-drug movie this is, given how frequently the adjective “psychedelic” is applied to Dick’s work and that Linklater’s own ouvre—including, recall, Dazed and Confused—seem rather friendlier to the concept of weirder living through chemistry. But when you think about it, this really is in Reefer Madness territory in many ways, though admittedly about a fictional drug. It is, we’re told, inexorably and immediately addictive: “You’re either on it… or you haven’t tried it.” And it therefore inevitably, sooner or later, turns everyone who uses it into a shuffling amnesiac zombie. Substance D, in other words, really is the drug caricature familiar from health class filmstrips.
But I bitch too much: It’s on the whole a fantastic film that uses the rotoscoping to excellent effect as a way of capturing the hallucinatory unreality of the world the characters inhabit. Definitely worth checking out.