A Scanner Darkly Review
Do you ever think your life is turning into a cartoon? The hapless Charles (Rory Cochrane) probably does. He is addicted to the psychotropic Substance D and experiences strange aphids crawling in his hair, all over his body, in his dog's coat, everywhere; but really they're all in his head. And narcotics agent 'Fred' (Keanu Reeves) probably does too. Equivocally, he is also a D user and suffers from an imbalance between the two hemispheres of his brain, resulting in dissociative behaviour. In order to conceal their true identities, agents wear scramble suits - kind of top-to-toe overalls that flicker with an ever-metamorphosing assemblage of different components of appearances, like berserk identikit generators. Enough to make anyone think they're in a cartoon… but just to make sure Richard Linklater has actually transformed his movie into a cartoon - by the process of interpolated rotoscoping, where animation is placed frame by frame onto live-action footage.
It's an intriguing, seductive technique that well compliments the schizoid nature of the movie. Sometimes the work is very cartoonish, and sometimes almost on the point of turning back into real life, with a wide spread of nuances in between. So our relationship to the material is in a constant state of flux as the pitch of its reality rises and falls. Based on the writing of Philip K. Dick, A Scanner Darkly shares a cinematic lineage with Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report and others. The two former films were seminal in establishing the look and feel of cyberpunk in cinema, which entered the mainstream in the form of the Terminator and Matrix franchises. By going down the animation route, Linklater leaves this baggage behind completely, instead achieving a graphic novel quality not that far away from last year's Sin City in its altered-reality feel, though utterly different in style and texture. With its bright, pastel hues, inky blacks and posterized gradations, A Scanner Darkly harks back to traditional cartoons and litho printing processes, but carries an extra edge.
The story - a thriller, convoluting around all-pervasive drug paranoia, set in a near future California of Big Brother total surveillance - is one of Dick's most personal, with an observed-from-life feel to many of the scenes. Fred, in his undercover persona of Bob Arctor, hangs out with fellow D freaks James (Robert Downey Jr.) and Ernie (Woody Harrelson), with Bob's girlfriend Donna (Winona Ryder) completing the gang. Conversations about the gear system of a bike, or the reasons why an accelerator pedal jammed, have the authentic stamp of drug-addled thinking and wired behaviour patterns, and the trio of Reeves, Downey Jr. and Harrelson are at their jive-talking, gesticulating best in putting this across. The manic, jittery James is a particularly brilliant creation - by an actor well qualified to bring him to life.
Things start to get really weird when Fred, the agent in scramble suit, is told to spy on Arctor the D junkie - himself. One scene where Fred incredulously spools through CCTV of Arctor having sex really underlines his metaphysical turmoil. Later James approaches Fred and his boss with information on Arctor, unaware that Arctor and Fred are one and the same. Nobody is what they appear to be and the various plot twists eventually develop the brain-hurting feel of a bad trip. On that front, Charles goes too far with D and has a screaming bummer, where a being from the next world, with a head covered in eyes, reads out a never ending list of Charles' sins as he lays helplessly pinned to his bed. Split between his two identities as narc and user, Fred/Bob doesn't fare well either, and the downbeat tone of the tale becomes, finally, a little too relentless - but then happy endings weren't Dick's long suit.
Whilst it works very well in the more phantasmagoric parts of the film, the animation technique can be at times uninvolving, and one occasionally feels like scraping away the overlay to better connect with the real action underneath. (Perhaps the DVD might contain some pre-treatment footage as a novel extra.) Another film might benefit from such animating in specific sequences only, as an altered effect, but with A Scanner Darkly it really has to be all or nothing. Linklater has been here before, with Waking Life back in 2001, and one must applaud his experimental verve. However A Scanner Darkly remains a specialist taste, and is most likely to be remembered for its techniques and their visual sophistication rather than the popular appeal of the piece as a whole.