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EP Review: A Scanner Darkly

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A film by Richard Linklater.

Reviewed by Paul R. Potts and Jonathon Sullivan.

Comments (27)

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  1. Simeon says:

    I would like to begin with a bold statement. Philip K Dick was a bad writer. His ideas about the nature of identity, sanity, and reality were all innovative and interesting, but the man could not tell a story. That is why even bad movies based on his ideas are better than his novels. I will go so far as to say that Blade Runner saved Dick from obscurity for all but the nerdiest fanboys.

    Here is a less bold statement, Richard Linklater makes boring movies. I do not confuse boring with bad, My Dinner With Andre is a fine and boring film for example. Dazed and Confused had its moments, as do all of his meandering films, and those moments sometimes make the rest of his movies tollerable to the point of almost being good… but that’s it, almost.

    On to Bakshi and rotoscope. I know Ralph a little bit. I went to NYU with his daughter, and I stayed friends with the family. I just saw him at Comic Con last month. So believe when I say this of him and animators in general. They are experemental people. The fact that this film about drugs was done in the style of a guy whose experimenting with animation styles was influenced psychoactive substances is no coincidence. However, idea of Linklater’s meandering around some Dick concepts without decent structure makes me want to opt for the drug experience over the cinematic. Seriously. For about the same price as the missus and I having a night out, I scored an 8th of mushrooms. We are going to making our own Scanner Darkly. It might wander, it might be convoluted, and the performances might be iffy, but at least we ther wont be any Keanu Reeves… Damn it, why did I say that, now I am totally gonna have a and trip and Keanu is gonna be all in my head.

  2. Spork says:

    I see those commercials on television done in this rotoscope style. I can’t imagine watching it for an entire film.

    What’s the purpose of it? Is there anything really gained from rotoscoping people?

  3. ross says:

    i love Philip K Dick and think he was fab, i am indeed a sellf confesed fan boy,but if his books wernt so good i wuldent have become so.
    as for freeky roboscoping madnes ,i will have to watch the fillm befor i can coment on it

  4. Simon says:

    Oh for gods sake… More Dick worship.. Simeon I am with you all the way! I Love Dick conceptually, but he really really doesn’t deserve all this credibility as a writer – he’s unfortunately pretty bad at it! So the immediate statement in this review that “We can remember it for you wholesale” is far superior to “total recall” is ridiculous… Wholesale is about 15 pages long and a totally hollow story… Recall is flawed, silly, ridiculous and it has Arnie in it – but to claim a 15 page badly written story is better than a 2 hour Verhoeven opus is farcical…

    I’ll watch this film, as always, but I do hate it when I see these reviewers not slaughtering obvious sacred cows…. Dick was a genius… He was also a crap writer..

  5. ross says:

    i realy dont think that its posabul to compare “remember wholesale” and “total recal” at all , thay realy isant any simalaraty between the 2 , its like comparing fish and shelving units

  6. Ben says:

    For me, Philip K. Dick was good in short does. His short stories were his best vehicle, a bit hit-and-miss, but definitely some hits.

    It’s his longer/newer novels that tended to be poor. Great concepts and beginnings by and large, but, the man couldn’t maintain a plot for any real length.

    For example, I’ve read “A Scanner Darkly”, and I do remember it started with some real promise, some real interest in the characters and a few novel ideas.

    Half-way through the book though… it had lost its bite. I finished it, but I can’t say why I did. I had stopped caring about what was going on, and wasn’t impressed by the ending.

    If I do see the film, it’ll be for the animation techniques and not the story. That’s *if* I see it.

  7. Simeon Weinraub says:

    I think that maybe we need to talk about what we expect from an adaptation. Movies and books are very different media, with very different limitations and very different demands in the level of participation from the consumer. Whenever I hear reports of a movie not being faithful to its source material, I am left with a choice of two responses: “duh” and “good”.

    I think that Philip K Dick is so often adapted for a number of reasons. The first is commercial. Producers can claim, “from the writer that brought you Blade Runner and Total Recall…” Second, as I said earlier, Dick has a lot of really intriguing ideas to hang a movie off of, but not a lot of solid story that one has to feel obligated not to throw out or change.

    For these reasons, a director or a screenwriter can feel safe in taking the kernel of the idea, and go in any direction that best suits the narrative, commercial demands of the production, or limited range of the star, without fear of offending anyone. In spite of being a well known writer, Dick doesn’t have the same kind of rabid fan-base that would take offense to a filmmaker taking license (like Tolkien and Rowling do). Scott, Linklater, and even Verhoeven, can safely walk the halls of any con, without fear that a pack of pissed off Dick-heads are out to tear them a new one for besmirching the sacred text. Honestly, if there were no movie adaptations, who would read him?

  8. Sullydog says:

    “Honestly, if there were no movie adaptations, who would read him?”

    Um…I would. And I do. And I did, from the moment I read “Faith of our Fathers,” long before _Blade Runner_ was a twinkle in Ridley’s eye.

    Me. That’s who.

    Along with Robert Silverberg. And Stanilsaw Lem. And Harlan Ellison. And Robert A. Heinlein. And Ursula K. LeGuin. And Brian W. Aldiss. And the fans who voted him a Hugo and a John W. Campbell award long before _Blade Runner_ graced the big screen. And, it would seem, Paul R. Potts and the millions of others who love sf and continue to read his work.

    That’s who.

    You can, as has been done in this forum, assert that Dick was a “bad” writer (although I have yet to see a convincing explicatoin of just what it is that makes him “bad”). But you cannot dismiss him, and you cannot deny his impact or his importance. Dick had a seminal influence upon our genre.

    True, Dick isn’t “easy.” Like most literature, you tend to get from his work what you bring to it. If Dick leaves you cold, then maybe…_just maybe_…it’s not Dick’s fault.

    In any event, I leave you with a final observation: sometimes sacred cows are exalted for good reason.

  9. Simeon Weinraub says:

    Well SullyDog, I have yet to see a convincing explanation of why Dick is a good writer, and I have read several of his works. This is not about my comprehension, it is about my gut reaction. He was an interesting thinker, and a man very much of his time in terms of the psychological ground he explores. That is why I read him. And my point is, that because he so interesting, without being so narratively compelling, his work is ripe for reworking.

    The other authors you listed are all fine writers, and being in their company does give the Hugo its weight… But, so what? This is still a matter of taste, and while I recognize Dick’s importance, I cannot recognize his quality.

    I thought that your film review was fine, I just think that when we compare adapted works, we need to make sure that we don’t fall into the trap of being disappointed that the two media forms are not parallel. A film, adapted or not has to stand alone as a expression of some idea, story, whatever. I don’t think it is fair to use a novel to prop up a film, or to put it down, not vice versa. Not that you did that, but, it was a point I wanted to make.

  10. Dom says:

    I saw the film about a month ago at the International Film Festival in Auckland, New Zealand. I also saw it, perhaps unusually among the posters on this website, without having read the book.

    I found it to be engaging and interesting. It does meander; it is convoluted. Ultimately, though, its strengths drew me in more than its flaws repulsed me – something that I can’t say for Linklater’s ‘Waking Life’.

    One thing that is worth mentioning is the film’s soundtrack. It’s beautiful. Hints of Radiohead’s ‘Fog’ and effects from Amnesiac, tracks which are very familiar to me, interspersed amongst dark and unfamiliar imagery: brilliant. Yorke’s ‘Black Swan’ from his new album over the credit was another nice touch.

  11. Simon says:

    Just to shore up Simeon again – I too have read a fair share of Dick’s works, and I stand by my description of him as bad.

    Even his straightest novel – The Man In The High Castle – is meandering in terms of plot, convoluted in terms of structure, and almost random in terms of emphasis (there is the death of Borman sub-plot that he really wants to talk about, but cant bring to the fore).

    Move into his druggier works like this one and he begins to get lost completely. Like Ben, I found ASD incoherent… It couldn’t decide if it was Burroughs/HST style druggie fiction or an explanation of ideas, and the structure collapsed in the second half.

    Now I am NOT engaging in Dick bashing here, the man is incredible… No-one else could possibly have written TMITHC, its emphasis on the I Ching is pure Dick… And the ideas in some of his short fiction are terrific – The Second Variety makes my skin crawl. But much like many SF writers he couldn’t pull it off over the length of a novel – Niven has the same problem, but has the good sense to always collaborate with someone who can do the structure and allow his ideas to run wild.

    I just find that his Hollywood driven elevation to the top of the top teer (Gollanz’s SF Masterworks range has more Dick titles than any other writer, even Heinlein) extremely frustrating. You place any of his works up against a truly well written piece of SF, like Flowers For Algernon or More Than Human, and Dick’s turgid prose falls flat.

    Dick is a very very clever ideas merchant, and a better writer than some (Asimov being one obvious example), but the worship is misplaced. I think it comes down to his position in both the counterculture and hollywood movies… He is in the unique position of appealing to On The Road fans and people who would read Starship Troopers..

  12. The latest F&SF publishes letters James Tiptree Jr. and Ursula LeGuin wrote to each other. In one section they gush about how faboo PKD is, but also comment on how sloppy his technique is.

    I’m a huge PKD fan, I own all of his short works and a good number of his novels. PKD may not be more than a competent wordsmith, but he makes me think and challenges me more than any other writer.

    (Sullydog, hard to believe but I’ve always thought Blade Runner was better than Androids. Although Ridley Scott’s re-interpretation of his film is so much bullshit, e.g. Deckerd as a replicant.)

  13. Simon, I think you’re incorrect about Hollywood having an influence on Dick’s reputation. Those who admire Dick’s writing generally abhor Hollywood’s interpretations. Don’t get me start by Minority Report (which Sullydog force me to watch against my will [but he introduced me to single malts, so I guess we’re square]).

  14. Simon says:

    Ok.. So I had just got my teeth into this argument.. When I went back through the Archive… Every Sullydog review has an almost immediate, confrontational, response from this Simeon dude. I gotta ask, are you guys buddies?

    Am I jumping on your parade?

  15. Sullydog says:

    Actually, we’re the same dude.

    I’m on subtance D, and so is he.

    I’m one hemisphere.

    He’s the other.

    You should see me/us when I/we watch Star Trek. It’s ugly.

  16. Hi all,

    (this is Paul… I did the review of the novel). I’m not going to go too deeply into this thread, but wanted to toss in my $.02.

    Simeon, I will agree with you that Dick is not, overall, a terribly strong and consistent _writer_, although there are exceptions in his work. This is why I said something in my review about loose ends (“that’s true of most of Dick’s novels.”) Scott mentioned Le Guin or Tiptree’s comment about sloppiness of technique. It’s true.

    The actual quality of his writing is _wildly_ variable. His strongest novels (Ubik is one of the more coherent, Mary and the Giant much more conventional) are quite strong, but there are a lot of them that were clearly speed-fueled, extremely rushed, and poorly edited. And some of them are just kind of middling: they just don’t make that much of an impression, good or bad. I would not really want to try to defend the quality of the _writing_ in his pulpier novels. Dick… had issues. Anxious, impoverished, depressed… all too human, and as his early death indicates, all too frail. In fairness, if you look at just about any big-name writer who had to earn a living cranking out work, you can find some that is not memorable.

    However, I also agree with Sullydog that his reputation is well-deserved. He was a _brilliant_ guy, one of those driven visionaries who comes along now and then. Read the VALIS trilogy if you want to be convinced of that. Was he crazy? It seems that he probably crossed the line into psychosis, yes. But ironicaly he was aware of where that line lay and in VALIS it is quite interesting to see him make himself into a character (Horselover Fat, a literal translation of the meaning of the words Philip Dick) and then analyze that man and his visions and mad exegesis. It’s baffling, amazing, apocalyptic (in the sense of “revealing what is hidden). He was a genius; the word genius coming from the root for “source” or “fountain” — ideas flowed out of him.

    Can the two aspects of his work be reconciled? I would also go so far as to say that the kind of mind who was so bursting with ideas and anxieties and visions is almost by definition not the kind of mind who is able to take the time to tinker, to refine, to polish all his work until it shone like gemstones. He felt that his mind was being blasted with a barrage of strange information, and had to get it down. And he had to crank out more work to earn a living; probably more work than he would have chosen to release, on his own. But that reality drove him to produce the body of work that we’ve got, warts and all. This is not entirely a bad thing — it means there is a lot in Dick’s work which encourages the reader to think of it as _unfinished_, inviting the reader to flesh it out, at least internally.

    It is interesting to note that most of the film adaptations have been based on his short stories, not his novels, Blade Runner and A Scanner Darkly being exceptions. This is in part because the novels are just too jam-packed with different things going on. Even the adaptation from Androids into Blade Runner had to lose a number of the stranger aspects of the novel altogether (the alternate death-world the narrator enters into, for example). The movie Blade Runner itself is a mixed bag: brilliant visually, but with problems: the weakly integrated detective-story theme, the voiceovers, all that.

    The short stories tend to be more coherent (polished, edited down) and have, individually, a sufficiently small number of out-there ideas that it is possible to get them into a coherent film.

    The adaptations have not, as a rule, been stellar. Personally, taking into account what I feel makes a good movie as opposed to a good novel or short story, I think that the smaller-budget ones have been better. I feel like Total Recall was just painful to watch. My favorite adaptation is probably not one that most people would pick — it is actually the film Screamers, which alters the original story “Second Variety” only slightly. It is entertaining, focused, has that surreal Cold War world view (I love the “RAD” cigarettes they smoke to protect themselves against radiation), moves quickly, and is not centered around a big celebrity action hero. Minority Report was a pretty good movie, on the strength of an aggresive script, although I think it would have been better with a smaller budget and without Tom Cruise. Paycheck had some promise but ran out of gas.

    Richard Linklater: Simeon, I agree with your distinction between “boring” and “bad.” Some of my favorite films of all time are slow and meditative: the original Solaris, Wings of Desire. I thought Waking Life was quite fascinating, although it could have used a little more cutting. But his stuff has _ideas_ in it, and that makes it worth a hundred Hollywood knock-off action flicks.

    Gotta go… thanks for reading this far…

    [1] All his novels: well, everything I could possibly get my hands on, including “The Man Whose Teeth…,” “Mary and the Giant,” “Puttering About,” “Humpty Dumpty,” and his children’s book “Nick and the Glimmung.” There are probably one or two very obscure ones, still out of print, that I missed.

  17. Unknown says:

    I saw Skanner Darkly a few days ago. It was an awesome movie! The rotoscope was refreshingly different from the normal action and/or animation movie. Along with the rotoscope, the plot was fantastic and made you think. think that it is the best movie I have seen all year.

  18. joe chip says:

    Haven’t seen Linklater’s Scanner Darkly yet…I live in Australia, and I’m not sure it will ever reach the big screen here in full release, so I may end up just having to rent it.

    Not to beat a dead horse, but:

    Although I’m not inclined to put Dick at the same level (in terms of literature) as someone like Conrad, Dostoyevsky, or Camus, in terms of the genre I’d say he’s pretty much at the top of the game.

    His writing, much like his ideas, are somewhat fragmented. Within the chaos of his form he does, however, exhibit a focus that conjures worlds just as real as any of the greats previously mentioned. The fact that he achieves this in a science fiction genre is a testament to his ability to develop characters (within the context) that are deep, compelling and believable. If there’s one thing that he did well, it was create characters that one intimately relates to.

    And just to note, he wasn’t without a level of complexity in his writing. “The man in the high castle” was effectively written from multiple (wandering?) viewpoints, which I consider a significant literary feat.

    I think it’s a bit (ignorantly) dismissive to generally state that Dick “was not a good writer”, when in fact you fail to properly define what exactly makes a good writer in the first place. Does it require a structural and academic command, or is it the ability to establish an emotive and intellectual connection? Either way, Dick has displayed a profound effect on many of his readers, and I think this is a legitimate argument for the qualification of his writing ability.

  19. Max says:

    I liked it. I haven’t read the book. Or any of his books. The film technique DID grow on me and I didn’t like it at first. I’m not sure why.

    I heard a review that said something about it representing a flat two dimensional world. Ok. These were charicatures as much as characters.

    Cartoon people. I think that was a visual statement.

    I’m not sure I got the whole thing. I would watch it again. I agreed with what I thought were the two main points, the one about the government and the one about self distructiveness. (He was against the damage both are doing and can do.)

    It was surreal.

    It was pretty too. Its a handsome cast. I don’t know if that is relevant to any political points.

    I had a problem with Woody Harrelson’s wig.

    Actually I guess I had a bit of a problem with the directing in that it kinda was over the top in spots. I liked Robert Downey’s portrayal, but it was a bit over the top, wacked out, Jeff Goldblum.

    Woody was wild too. Together, sometimes laugh out loud funny.

    Keanu played it more subtley. As did Wynona who was stunning. Even more watchable than usual.

    Liked it.

  20. scatterbrain says:

    Personally, Dr Bloodmoney, the first PKD novel I read, I think is the best novel of his to start off with.

    I loved the film and am planning to read the book soon; both are musts for comtempory Westerners.

    Oh, and Simeon: F*** you! You obviously are not familiar enough with postmodern literature to understand PKD(nor have an open mind).

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