Saturday, July 15, 2006

a scanner darkly

ever since i heard that richard linklater was going to direct philip k dick's a scanner darkly, and would do so using the animation style he'd used in waking life, i've been desperate to see it. dick was one of the greatest sf authors ever, and even the cheesiest dick adaptations have more good ideas than most junk that passes for science fiction cinema these days. beyond that, i'd loved waking life and was eager to see a darker, more linear film with that style.

i first heard about it at least a year ago; it was supposed to come out last september, then got pushed back and pushed back, eventually to this summer. it's finally out, so i took virago to see it this afternoon at the landmark. (but first we stopped for dim sum at shanghai lil. the dim sum wasn't perfect, but it was pretty tasty and surprisingly reasonably priced. i had been concerned by the decidedly mixed reviews at indyethnicfood.og, but i'd be happy to go back.)

so i'd been building the movie up in my mind for a year or more, and i wasn't disappointed. i loved it. it was extremely faithful to the book (which i read years ago) and is probably one of the best "drug movies" i've ever seen, by which i mean movies about drugs and drug users, not "movies to take drugs to". (i could easily see someone having a "bad trip" if they took the wrong substance before watching this film.) having only seen it once, i'd rank it up there with drugstore cowboy or maybe requiem for a dream (though not as emotionally bludgeoning as the latter).

the cast does a fantastic job of depicting addict behavior: paranoid, rambling, and erratic. lots of people dislike keanu reeves, but he's generally pretty good in roles where he's supposed to look confused all the time (ted "theodore" logan, neo in the matrix i), and he puts in a perfectly serviceable performance here. but keanu is upstaged by the brilliant performances of robert downey, woody harrelson, and rory cochrane. we spend much of the film watching these three (and sometimes keanu) talk a bunch of nonsense and get into hijinks. in this sense, it's not all that different from linklater's earlier experimental films like waking life or slacker, except there's a stronger narrative guiding the story along.

needless to say, it's not a happy movie, though i chuckled at a number of scenes. as the tagline says, "everything is not going to be ok." this is a dark, dystopian movie that takes place in a world where everyone is under constant surveillance, which unsurprisingly sounds far more realistic now than it did when dick wrote it. most of the characters are strung out on a drug called substance D, though it's not clear what kind of drug D is or what kind of high users are supposed to get from it. (is it an upper? a hallucinogen? an MAO inhibitor?)

the animation style—linklater shot the movie with live actors, and animators digitally rotoscoped over the film—perfectly suits the surreal style of the film, giving it a dreamlike, psychedelic quality. and the "scramble suit" worked wonderfully; i can't imagine how it could have been done nearly as well in a live-action film. i would describe the scramble suit, but i could never do it as well as dick himself did in the novel, so i'll just retype a couple paragraphs, because i love dick (snicker if you must):

Basically, his design consisted of a multifaceted quartz lens hooked up to a computer whose memory banks held up to a million and a half physiognomic fraction-representations of various people: men and women, children, with every variant encoded and then projected outwards in all directions equally onto a superthin shroudlike membrane large enough to fit around an average human.

As the computer looped through its banks, it projected every conceivable eye color, hair color, shape and type of nose, formation of teeth, configuration of facial bone structure—the entire shroudlike membrane took on whatever physical characteristics were projected at any nanosecond, and then switched to the next. Just to make his scramble suit more effective, S.A. Powers programmed the computer to randomize the sequence of characteristics within each set. And to bring the cost down (the federal people always liked that), he found the source of the material for the membrane in a by-product of a large industrial firm already doing business with washington.

In any case, the wearer of a scramble suit was Everyman and in every combination (up to combinations of a million and a half sub-bits) during the course of each hour. Hence, any description of him—or her—was meaningless...

[if you want more, you can "search inside" on amazon, or just buy the book. it's good. i'm not going to retype it for you.]

the scramble suits in the movie change a bit more slowly than in the book, but the effect works perfectly. and there are other scenes, notably hallucinations, which work beautifully with the animation and would have been trickier to pull of in a live-action movie. i can't imagine this movie being anything other than what it became.

i was totally psyched going in to see this movie, and i am still totally psyched about it eight hours after having seen it. i think that says it all. (i felt similarly about superman returns, which i saw a couple weeks ago but never got around to mentioning on the blog.)

this is a must-see for philip k dick fans, as it's the most faithful dick adaptation i've seen. some characters are blended into composites, and dick obviously didn't write all the dialogue (like the dialogue that refers to events from after his death), but the heart of the book is there. in contrast, even the best dick adaptations like blade runner changed substantial parts of the book. but if you're looking for whiz-bang sf action, maybe you should rewatch minority report or totall recall; a scanner darkly is mostly psychological, and the hero doesn't save the world at the end.

one last thing: i could be wrong, but i'm pretty sure i spotted the image of philip k dick himself in the scramble suit. look closely during the very first shot of "fred" in the suit, right after he's been introduced. you'll briefly see a bearded man who just might be philip k dick. i need to see it again to be sure (preferably with a pause button in my hand), but i do believe it was him. i thought that was a nice touch, especially when i dug out the novel to retype the above quote. here is the rest of it:

Needless to say, S.A. Powers had fed his own personal physiognomic characteristics into the computer units, so that, buried in the frantic permutation of qualities, his own surfaced and combined... on average, he had calculated, of once each fifty years per suit, served up and reassembled, given enough time per suit. It was his closest claim to immortality.

needless to say, philip k dick clinched his claim to immortality a long time ago; as one of the most creative and influential sf authors of all time, he won't be soon forgotten. RIP philip k dick.

update: IGN filmforce has the first 24 minutes of a scanner darkly for free! and i'm pretty sure it's legal, too. i'm impressed that warner is willing to post 24 minutes of its new movie online. so i went there, watched the first few minutes, and took the screenshot that is now attached to this post. tell me that's not philip k dick.

1 comment:

Pirx said...

Nice post, i was watching the film today and the screen capture of the suit is definetly PK Dick. You should read Emmanuel Carrere's book: "I am alive and you are dead P K Dick 1928-1982" which is probably the best byography of Dick ever writtened. You will suprisingly discover that most of the anecdotes of the book are autobyographic (it happened in reality) for example he indeed had a "girlfriend" called donna and lived for a couple of months like keanu and friends did.