Philip K Dick’s 1977 novel of paranoia and drug addicts would have been challenging to adapt. Richard Linklater’s film does it very well, capturing the essence of the novel.
The story follows an undercover narcotics agent who shares his house with three friends. They’re all addicted to Substance D, a drug whose ultimate side effect is to cut the link between the two sides of the brain and turn people into psychotic wrecks. The plot is not particularly action-packed. With simplification and a tighter focus, it follows that of the novel, which is more about ideas and is also a tribute to victims of drug abuse. The film even includes some of the author’s afterword, in which he lists some friends who died or were severely affected by drugs.
The setting is updated, being perhaps 20 years or so in the future (in the novel it was the early 90s but seemed like the 70s with better technology). The language is updated too, with no one saying they ‘dig’ anything or that they need ‘bread’. The characters display less sexism and no casual racism. Further on the subject of characters, they’re basically unchanged except for Donna, the only major female role. She’s not so criminal as in the book.
For me, the animation effect was unsettling, which I suppose was intended. Footage was filmed of Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr, Winona Ryder, Woody Harrelson and Rory Cochrane. Then rotoscoping was used (animation traced over the live action frames) to give a kind of graphic novel feel. It’s very striking.
I’m not exactly a fan of the book or the film but would recommend if the premise intrigues you. I watched the film because I found it for 50p in a charity shop and I like Keanu Reeves. However, I wanted to read the book first.
Low-resolution poster from Wikipedia.