A Scanner Darkly
Director: Richard Linklater.
Screenplay: Richard Linklater.
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder, Rory Cochrane, Melody Chase, Alex Jones, Lisa Marie Newmyer, Turk Pipkin, Steven Chester Prince.
“What does a scanner see? Into the head? Into the heart? Does it see into me? Clearly? Or darkly?”
(This review was a piece that was originally involved in The Decades Blogathon hosted by Mark of Three Rows Back and Tom of Digital Shortbread. These guys are two of the finest around and I wholeheartedly recommend their sites if you don’t know them already. You can check out their sites and all the Blogathon entries from the links above.)
In 2001, director Richard Linklater delivered a little-seen, gem of a film called Waking Life. Many didn’t pay notice to it which is one of many a film viewers biggest mistakes. Granted, the philosophical material may not have been everyone’s idea of entertainment but this film pioneered a filmmaking technique that, simply, shouldn’t have been overlooked. Linklater approached Waking Life with an animation method called “Rotoscoping”. Basically it was animation added over live actors and it’s a process that can be painstaking to deliver. The results were hugely effective for the material and, five years later, he decided to use the technique again on his adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s paranoid science fiction novel, A Scanner Darkly. Once again, the results are very impressive.
In the near future, Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) an undercover cop, is given the assignment to bring down a vast network of drug distribution, dealing in “Substance D” – which is highly addictive and mind altering. He fully immerses himself in the lifestyle, to the point were he has become an addict himself and even his superiors don’t know his cover story. As a result, they order him to spy on himself. Being under the influence regularly, it causes him to lose his grip on reality where nothing is clear anymore.
Before this film went into production, it had gained interest from a couple of notable players in the film industry. Director Terry Gilliam was interested in the early 90’s and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman had actually drafted a screenplay that was eventually unused once he became more sought after following the success of Being John Malkovich. One can only wonder at what might have become of an adaptation had they been involved but that doesn’t lessen the fact that Linklater does a sterling job here. For a start, his decision to implement the “interpolated rotoscoping” animation again is a stroke of genius. On Waking Life it complimented the existential dream-like story and it’s used similarly on this film. It’s a technique that could be in danger of overuse but when the story and characters themselves are operating from an occasional surreal point of view, rotoscoping is perfectly fitting. It serves as a metaphor for the characters’ drug induced alternate realities and allows us to identify with their paranoia and the struggle with their personal identity. You’d be forgiven for thinking that it might take away from the actors’ performances but it doesn’t. In some ways it enhances them; Reeves is an actor that has came in for some criticism throughout his career but he’s really rather good here and the support, from Harrelson and especially Downey Jr, is excellent. Who better to be included in a film of substance abuse than a couple of actors who have dabbled with both herbal and chemical remedies in their time?
The script is also very faithful to Philip K. Dick’s own source material. You can tell Linklater has invested a lot of his time in adapting, what is essentially, some of Dick’s own paranoid thoughts – he was heavily involved in the abuse of amphetamines and psychedelics at the time of writing it – and explores the usual themes involved in his novels; the sociological and political aspects of human society under the control of an authoritarian government. If your a fan of Dick’s musings then you’ll find them all here. Some may find fault with the film’s slightly lethargic pace but the visuals and thought provoking content are so captivating that the pace can be forgiven. Sometimes Philip K. Dick’s stories are not afforded the proper treatment in movies; there are stinkers like Nicolas Cage’s Next and Ben Affleck’s Paycheck but this ranks very highly alongside the successful adaptations like Total Recall and Blade Runner.
Linklater’s attention and commitment to Philip K Dick’s challenging material pays off and he produces a thought-provoking head-trip of a film that delivers both intellectually and visually.
Trivia: Philip K. Dick’s daughters gave director Richard Linklater their father’s personal copy of the novel “A Scanner Darkly” when he completed this movie.