Animating Dick's paranoid vision

Posted: July 09, 2006

"What does a scanner see? Into the head? Into the heart? Does it see into me? Clearly? Or darkly?"

- Fred, A Scanner Darkly

Philip K. Dick, dead since 1982, saw into the head and the heart. And he saw into the future - clearly.

So clearly that since his burial in a Colorado cemetery, Dick has become one of the hottest names in Hollywood, the writer behind the novels and stories that were adapted into Blade Runner, Total Recall, and Minority Report.

In the new A Scanner Darkly, a 1977 Dick novel turned into a funny, strange, paranoia-laden film starring Keanu Reeves, Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder and Robert Downey Jr., the tense tap-dance between narcs and dealers has been amped up thanks to high-tech, identity-shifting "scramble suits" and government surveillance apparatus that monitor every aspect of a person's life.

The movie, shot digitally then converted into trippy animation, comes from Richard Linklater, the Texas filmmaker of Slacker, Dazed and Confused, and School of Rock. It opens at the Ritz Theaters on Friday.

A pulp sci-fi scribe of prolific proportions (36 novels and more than 100 short stories), Dick wrote about androids and alternate realities, cyberspace and electronic sleuthing, media monoliths and mind control. He worked mostly on a typewriter; at the time of his death from a stroke, at age 53, personal computers were still in their floppy-disc toddler stage.

Dick, whose middle name was Kindred (as in kindred spirit), regarded "even his craziest books not as works of imagination but as factual reports," says Emmanuel CarrĀre, the French author and screenwriter whose book I Am Alive and You Are Dead offers a meta-biography and literary analysis of Dick and his work.

The first of eight films to be adapted from his books came out just a few months after Dick died. It was Blade Runner, Ridley Scott's groundbreaking 1982 futuristic noir, reimagined from Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Harrison Ford starred as a hard-boiled hunter of genetically engineered Replicants - androids who long to become truly human.

In Paul Verhoeven's Total Recall, the 1990 mega-hit starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and adapted from the Dick story "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale," a man's memories turn out to be wholly fabricated.

In Steven Spielberg's 2002 hit Minority Report, adapted from the Dick story of the same name (by Swarthmore screenwriter Jon Cohen), the government has set up a system whereby it can arrest criminals before they've committed their crime. A trio of psychics offers visions of the "precriminals" and the dastardly deeds they'll commit in the future. Tom Cruise and Colin Farrell star.

In John Woo's Paycheck (2003), from the same-titled Dick short story, Ben Affleck is a super-techie who works on clandestine corporate projects for which he's paid millions. The catch: After each job is complete, his memory is erased, so he'll be unable to divulge any industry secrets.

Other films based on Dick's work include Impostor, Screamers, and the French-made Confessions d'un Barjo (Confessions of a Crap Artist).

With varying degrees of success the films, like the books, involve protagonists who are being royally messed around with, who are prompted to question their sanity, their memories, the things they take for real. Someone, or some thing, is usually out to get them, and media, or big government, or the corporate culture is often behind it.

What's different about A Scanner Darkly, apart from its unique animation process - which dovetails perfectly with the story's theme of shifting, tenuous reality - is that it's less about the hardware and the action tropes, and more about the characters and the psychotropic. The movie's ragtag bunch of druggies, addicted to the super-powerful Substance D, hang around ratty abodes rapping about cars and bikes, fantasizing about diner waitresses, contemplating rehab and suicide.

"What appealed to me about A Scanner Darkly," Linklater says in an interview, "is that it's not really about 'the future.' It's about Joe Everyman and his pals, worrying about money and sex and being frustrated. A lot of sci-fi deals with these amazing futuristic worlds where humans have suddenly lost all their humor and become emotionless automatons. Dick always guarded his characters' humanity. They're flawed and they're real."

Linklater also related to what he calls the "John Ashcroft elements" of A Scanner Darkly - the overreaching network of police and G-men monitoring cell-phone calls, e-mails and conversations. "The only element of the story that's really outside of the here-and-now is the 'scramble suit,' " says the writer-director, referring to the shape-shifting body suit that disguises its wearer's true identity.

A Scanner Darkly also captures the schizoid, psychotic waverings of someone who has ingested way too many mind-altering chemicals. Dick wrote the book based on his own experiences in drug rehab, and on the lives - and deaths - of friends.

Linklater's adaptation, a $6 million indie with an out-there visual format and a kick-around, riffy feel, is not your slick studio take on Dick. At the same time, though, it captures the surreal but very real-seeming imaginings of its visionary author with humor and horror.

"What Franz Kafka was to the first half of the 20th century, Philip K. Dick is to the second half," wrote Art Spiegelman, author of the Pulitzer-winning graphic novel Maus.

And he's every bit as relevant in the beginning decades of the 21st century, too.

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or Read his recent work at

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