Okay, so holy shit. It sounds reductive and pedestrian, sure, but still: holy shit. Let's get right to the point: A Scanner Darkly is great. If you need to know more, keep reading—but if you don't, just get to Fox Tower already.
Here's the deal: If we're talking unadaptable books, Philip K. Dick's A Scanner Darkly pretty much takes the cake—based off his own experience as an addict, Dick's 1977 novel is a hectic, blurry, surreal clash of drugs and cops and everyone stuck in the middle. Taking place in a near-future where one drug—"Substance D"—has enthralled a good part of the population, America's social structure has become seriously broken: Cops futilely try to curb the use and distribution of the harmful, addictive drug; creepy detox centers suck in the empty husks of addicts; and everyone else spends their time trying to survive and/or score more Substance D. Scanner's protagonist is Bob Arctor, an addict who lives with a couple of other burnouts in a busted-down SoCal house. Which seems simple enough—until one realizes that one of the side effects of Substance D is that it splits the user's brain into two independently functioning halves. Since Arctor's brain and consciousness has been split in two, he doesn't realize his other half is a cop named Fred—who happens to be investigating one of the biggest figures in the drug scene, who happens to be Bob Arctor.
If it sounds confusing and weird and creepy, that's because it is. It's also flat-out brilliant—the sort of oblique, dark, evocative setup that only the best sci-fi can provide. The fact that Dick's writing is so great isn't that surprising—he's simply one of the best writers to come out of 20th century America—but what is surprising is that Richard Linklater's film is great too. Great enough, even, to prompt this: Linklater's A Scanner Darkly is just as good as—if not better than—Dick's pretty incredible, pretty unadaptable source material. Hence the holy shit.
A twisting fever dream of a film, Scanner stars a subdued Keanu Reeves as Arctor/Fred; Wynona Rider as Donna, Arctor's damaged/sexy love interest; plus a darkly funny Robert Downey Jr. and spaced-out Woody Harrelson as two of Arctor's druggie compatriots. But perhaps the biggest, most important character in the film is Linklater's visual style. Shooting the actors as one would with a traditional film, Linklater then post-productioned the hell out of Scanner, using computers to trace 2D drawings over the filmed footage, replacing all the actors and backgrounds with carefully drawn images. It's a surreal, discombobulating, and appropriately futuristic effect; think of a moving comic book, or the most uncannily lifelike animation you've ever seen. Linklater's used this style before, albeit with the unfortunate Waking Life, his tedious, rambling 2001 film which largely consisted of drawn-over actors bullshitting for two hours. There, visuals like these were a nausea-inducing novelty; here, they tightly dovetail with Dick's surreal, frightening, familiar world. It's all nightmarish and garish, overwhelming and vibrant, scary and hysterical.
Dick's writing is some seriously—and understandably—whacked-out stuff, happily walking a tightrope between comprehension and confusion, and veering into philosophic acrobatics as comfortably as it does visceral blows. Linklater's note-by-note screenplay adaptation and inspired visuals nail Dick's fascinating plot and unsettling tone—throw in some dead-on performances, a soundtrack that flows with the prickly, urgent, and moving strains of Radiohead, and, for all its otherworldliness, A Scanner Darkly feels damningly prescient and tangible. But perhaps more importantly, it feels like the work of Philip K. Dick—fucked up and sad and heart wrenching and vibrant, saying something important and saying it in a striking way.