A film review by Craig J. Koban
A SCANNER DARKLY
2006, R, 100 mins.
Keanu Reeves: Bob Arctor / Wionna Ryder: Donna / Robert Downey Jr.: James Barris / Woddy Harrelson: Ernie Luckman / Rory Cochrane: Freck
Written and directed by Richard Linklater / Based on the book by Phillip K. Dick
"For now we see through a glass, darkly."
- 1 Corinthians: 13
His 1977 landmark work, A SCANNER DARKLY, is highly indicative of these sensibilities. Leaning a bit away from technology and more towards drug culture and theology, Dick appropriated some of his own real life experiences with drugs to spin a detective yarn that was mixed with a bleak, dour, and semi-totalitarian future. Having read the work many years ago, I find Dick’s amazing amalgamation of so many divergent elements fresh and strong, even today.
A SCANNER DARKLY was part police procedural, part social commentary on the nature of surveillance, part commentary on the escalating use and abuse of dangerous drugs, and part investigation into the rather drab and unfortunate realities of national rehab clinics that may or may not be contributing to the problem. As a fictional work that strongly echoed modern American society by dealing with pertinent issues in a somewhat ethereal setting, A SCANNER DARKLY was pure Dick through and through.
The choice of Richard Linklater to helm a big screen adaptation of the material seems like a simultaneous inspired and odd choice. He focused on youth culture and drug use (the later element albeit marginally) in his terrific 1993 seventies comedy DAZED AND CONFUSED. His other works were thoughtful and penetrating, like BEFORE SUNSET and its sequel AFTER SUNSET. Even more significant to DARKLY is his previous work, the amazingly overrated WAKING LIFE, which can now be seen as a bit of a testing ground for the aesthetic trappings that A SCANNER DARKLY employs.
Much like WAKING LIFE, A SCANNER DARKLY is not a live action film, per se. On the other hand, I refuse to acknowledge these works as animated films, as that would be largely a misnomer. Linklater’s technique, though, is kind of fascinating in itself; perhaps the by-product of many artists’ thoughts after being in a drug induced haze themselves. Linklater shot the entire film with live actors, real settings and exteriors. After principal photography was completed, he employed a team of artists to essentially trace over each individual live action frame (a process called “rotoscoping”). It has been said that it took approximately 500 hours to faithfully and thoroughly complete one minute’s worth of useable rotoscoping action in the film. As a result, the real unsung heroes of the film are its team of lead animators.
Initially at least, the effect is incredibly distracting, but the more you watch the film the more you immerse yourself in its haunting and hallucinogenic imagery. Instead of presenting the world of the future in a realistic manner, what we get in A SCANNER DARKLY is something altogether semi-real. A live action film version of Dick’s novel would have given it an aura of normalcy. With the morphing shapes and seemingly psychedelic colors of many images, the rotoscoping technique proves to be ultimately a necessity for this type of material. Considering the underlining themes of the work – that of a world of horrendous drug abuse and the nature of consciousness and reality – Linklater’s choice to create a rotoscope-noir is crucial to the overall success of the film. It reveals itself to be that much more creepy. In a way, it allows it to truly revel in its paranoid, futuristic sensibilities.
Considering the other cinematic efforts that have adapted Dick’s works, most notable BLADE RUNNER, TOTAL RECALL, and most recently MINORITY REPORT, Linklater’s A SCANNER DARKLY is wonderfully and surprisingly faithful to the source material. Granted, the other films mentioned were all significant watershed works of silver screen sci-fi, but Linklater’s choice here to not sanitize the overwhelming material for more mainstream digestibility is another of the film’s ultimate assets. The film is not a nicely concocted, tightly written, and easily packaged bit of story telling. There is a haunting ambiguity to the story that Linklater effortlessly captures. The twisted reality of the main protagonist embellishes the tone of the piece, where one has to begin to question his own reality.
In the film Keanu Reeves gives one of his more memorable performances (rotoscoped and all) as Bob Arctor, a futuristic undercover cop that works as a narc in a futuristic Orange County of 2012. The world he occupies is familiar to us (this is not an obsessively technologically advanced society; too much of that in the film would have distracted from the story), but the main difference is in terms of the police state that watches over its citizens like Big Brother. Arctor has a tough job. He not only has to keep tabs on an underground hippie household of perpetual drug users, he has to go undercover in the home to further spy on him. The basic requirement of the narcotics officer in the future is to be anonymous at all times and to avoid being corrupted.
Being anonymous is relatively easy for Arctor on the job. In an ingenious move, all narcs must wear “scramble suits” on the job to keep their anonymity. The suit essentially is high tech and amorphous. When a person sees another with a suit on they will only see thousands upon thousands of morphing male and female visages fade in and out. I only hope that the narc officers take mass amounts of Ibuprophen, because how any of them could carry on an eye-to eye conversation without inducing instant migraines is beyond me.
The main addictive drug of the future is Substance D, a psychoactive pill so powerful that it allows for each side of the brain to function independently of one another. The main problem with Arctor is that he secretly has become addicted to the drug, and when you are forced to be both a law officer and be an undercover hippie, it becomes dangerously hard for him to distinguish properly between his two positions. Made even more complicated is his love for a fellow addict, Donna (the appropriately dippy Wynona Ryder), and it is his feelings for her that are also conflicting with his moral imperative of using her to find the source of the drugs. Growing mentally unstable, Arctor decides that the only may to make sense of his reality is to start spying on himself. Using a scanner – a holographic video camera/projector – Arctor is able to view clips of himself working undercover. However, he soon grows incredible unstable and when his superiors discover the truth behind his addiction, things spiral out of control for him and even darker secrets are revealed as a result.
On a thematic level, Linklater’s A SCANNER DARKLY is in the great tradition of introspective sci-fi, where ideas and moral issues are brought to the forefront first and special effects and explosions take a far distant second. As a basic detective story, the film is also engaging, if not a bit too rambling and incoherent at times. The plot is – I guess – purposely confusing and convoluted, which only heightens the main character’s pathos. At times, however, I felt like there where too many scenes of characters rambling incessantly about nothingness, much like they did in the laboriously boring WAKING LIFE. Now, A SCANNER DARKLY is more concerned with story than it is with dialogue, but they’re a few instances where the endless diatribes of some of the characters impedes the overall flow of the narrative. Consider one philosophical musing by Arctor himself: "What does a scanner see? Into the head? Into the heart? Does it see into me? Clearly? Or darkly?” Huh?
The casting of the film, fortunately, is excellent. Keanu Reeves is sort of perfectly stoic as the perpetually drug-hazed police officer who is desperately trying piece his life back together while the drugs are eroding his sense of the real. Wynona Ryder gives a sort of droopy humanity and desperation to her fellow drug addict. The film is also benefited from some very necessary comic relief in the form of both Robert Downey Jr. and Woody Harrelson, both inspired – and ironic – choices if one considers their own bouts with drugs off-camera. Harrelson is wonderfully daffy and trippy as Luckman, one of Arctor’s housemates who may have taken too many drugs. Some of his spontaneous ramblings are hilariously crazy, like during one point where he fears narcs are going to arrest him (“What if they come in through the back door or the bathroom window like that infamous Beatles song?). Even more inspiring is Downey’s turn as the rambunctiously loony housemate, Barris. Barris is in such a Substance D trance most of the time that his lighting fast and somewhat incoherent rants garner some of the film’s most suspiring laughs, like in one instance where he jumps up and screams, “We have the thwart those albino shape-shifting lizard bitches!”
As a fitting and efficiently faithful appropriation of Phillip K. Dick’s 1977 novel of the same name, Richard Linklater’s A SCANNER DARKLY emerges – despite some flaws - as one of 2006’s more inquisitive and invigorating sci-fi morality plays. It effortlessly draws the viewer into its dreary and depressing story of a futuristic police state and drug obsessed counterculture with its mind-warping and magnetic rotoscoped animation. The film is one of risks, both aesthetically speaking and on a narrative level, not to mention for Linklater himself, who decided to take the refreshing approach of making a desolate future noir and not one with a neatly wrapped up beginning, middle, and end. After huge misfires of logic, like the utterly unnecessary remake of THE BAD NEWS BEARS and the nauseatingly saccharine Jack Black vanity project, SCHOOL OF ROCK, A SCANNER DARKLY is Linklater’s proud return to cinema of substance and intrigue. As a beautifully stylized and superbly acted work that manages to remain devoted to the source material, this is a film that amplifies the best of Dick by being thought-provoking and disturbing at the same time.