How do you get inside Philip K Dick’s head? Blade Runner delivered visionary atmospherics; Total Recall opted for gory bombast; Minority Report busted blocks. Director Richard Linklater offers another choice: the black comedy of stoned manners. “This is my kind of sci-fi movie,” he admits on an amiable commentary. “It’s a bunch of guys sitting around talking about cars!”
Despite its near-future setting, Dick’s story of undercover narc Fred (Keanu Reeves) getting high on his own supply of superdrug Substance D reflected the author’s own life in the paranoid, posthippie ’70s. His daughter, Isa Dick Hackett, is on hand in the extras to confirm the authenticity of Linklater’s slacker-speak – leapt on by Robert Downey Jr (wired) and Woody Harrelson (slurred), aptly cast as Fred’s headcase housemates.
There’s not much plot; Linklater reveals post-production battles to retain the Darkly’s shaggier tangents. But Dick’s themes – the clash of counterculture and authority, the addict’s flailing grasp of reality – emerge intact.
That’s only half the story, of course. Perfecting the rotoscoping techniques he used on 2001’s Waking Life, Linklater invites an army of animators to draw over the filmed images to duplicate Fred’s twitchy dislocation. The benefits are most apparent in the visual chaos of the ‘scramble suit,’ whose ever-shifting faces keep Fred’s identity a secret. But rotoscoping’s otherworldly shimmer lends a panicky presence even to the most mundane moments; in hi-def, the sensory overload is staggering. The characters’ sharp outlines look tangible enough to touch, yet you could swim in their luxuriant, pulsating skin tones. Mo-cap on the cheap, maybe, but in its own lo-fi way A Scanner Darkly is as astonishing as Avatar.