review: a scanner darkly

July 22, 2006

What does the scanner see? Into the head? Down into the heart? Does it see into me? Into us? Clearly or darkly?

Returning to the same reality-defying animation style that served him so well in Waking Life, director Richard Linklater (Before Sunset, School of Rock) delivers a sharply depressing head trip through drug use, corruption, and despair in his new film A Scanner Darkly, adapted from the Philip K. Dick short story of the same name. I just wish the plot weren’t such a bore.

A scathing condemnation of drug culture and addiction, the near-future storyline revolves around the paranoia-filled lifestyles of a group of 30-something slacker types whose dependence on super-drug “substance D” brings them perilously close to losing their already tenuous grip on reality. One of these, protagonist Robert Arctor (Reeves), a former family man, is, due to schizophrenia induced by the drug, unaware that he is also a federal agent investigating his and his friends’ roles as drug users and traffickers. This convolution is facilitated by a “scramble suit” he wears that renders him unrecognizable while on the job; those around him see only a constantly shifting blur of physical appearances, anonymizing him even to his co-workers. Complicating this is the rise of New Path, a company specializing in substance D addiction treatment that has suspiciously positioned itself outside of federal surveillance and regulation. The stage is thus set for the ensuing mind-bending dive into this post-apocalyptic dystopia; it intrigues despite a plot which contents itself with meandering more or less unsatisfactorily on its way to a conclusion that ultimately fails to live up to the promise of the premise.

Because of this, the story works best if you don’t think about it too much and instead focus on the trippy, decidedly somber mood–though one punctuated by moments of levity–that Mr. Linklater and his actors have created. Arctor and his friends are depressingly neurotic–even borderline psychotic–but their quirky camaraderie bursts forth in moments of unexpected brilliance. Robert Downey Jr.’s James Barris steals every scene he’s in, playing a frighteningly intelligent yet utterly deranged “chemist” who, in one memorable vignette, nearly goes into fits after realizing that his cheaply purchased “18-speed” bike (which may or may not be stolen merchandise) has only nine before rallying everyone for a “search for the missing gears!” (as a frenetic Woody Harrelson blurts out). The lunacy here, simultaneously amusing and deeply troubling, is palpable.

The drug itself is said to have made addicts of 20% of the nation’s citizens; in the words of Barris, “you’re either on it or you’ve never tried it.” Like Traffic and others before it, the film does not shy away from graphic portrayal of drug use (abuse) and its effects. If anything, Scanner‘s substance D is even more frightening than modern narcotics, taking the sanitized form of tiny red pills in aluminum cylinders that are never out of arm’s reach. Terrifying hallucinations are a common side effect; the film opens with disturbing images of a man desperately trying to ward off swarms of imaginary aphids that cover his body, disappearing and reappearing without warning. It’s horrific, it’s powerful, and it’s surely what Dick, a drug user himself who dedicated the book to friends ruined by addiction, would have wanted.

No discussion would be complete without a few thoughts on the animation technique (called rotoscoping). Scenes were shot with traditional cameras and then overlayed with an colorful, imperfect, and decidedly grungier version of the same. The result is almost certainly more effective and appropriate than a live-action presentation: object outlines blur, fade, and shimmer arbitrarily, heightening the overall unreality of the world and Arctor’s increasingly questionable sanity; and Mr. Linklater leverages the flexibility of the medium to manipulate time, illustrate thoughts, and to confuse the viewer’s own grasp of events. Indeed, this is a film whose intricacies warrant more than one viewing; perfection eludes it, but lurking sublimity and gritty realism provide ample fodder for many a late night discussion.

–D. S. W.


4 Responses to “review: a scanner darkly”

  1. Matty Light said

    A few points:
    It’s a character study, not a thriller – we dig deeply into Fred Arctor’s head, and it’s that exploration providing the motivation to go on. All drug discussion aside, what would it be like to be assigned to monitor yourself? The world, the internet, approaching asymptotically the goal of anonymity opens us to a hostile environment where we don’t even know ourselves. I think the pacing of the film was rough at times, but it swiftly evolves from plot to Keanu. Granted, the bike subplot, the car failure – you wonder what happened, but it becomes more and more imperative to find out how Arctor handles it. Is this the most perfect execution? Certainly not, but Dick loves to explore the human mind, and I think it’s powerful suggestion here.

    On the rotoscoping:
    It was cute, it would have been nice in a short film, it added to many scenes and created an alien environment in otherwise contemporary L.A. But my eyes lost focus, and I found it almost headache-inducing. A great attempt, and maybe we’ll see some better rotoscoping in the future that isn’t quite so blunt.

    I did love Barris though, and so perfect to be played by Downey.

  2. mrwiz said

    I agree with your first paragraph, certainly, and I think those perspectives are well represented in the review. (I never called it a thriller). Good points about the surveillance, though.

    On the rotoscoping, it’s not really a matter of there being “better” or “less blunt” implementation: the technique has been around for decades, it has a relatively standard look, and here it was being used as Linklater wanted. I understand your headache complaints (etc.) but I really like it.

  3. Jonathan Coveney said

    The actors were well utilized, but it was simply, as you said, a bore. It was good, but it could have been so much more. I don’t know if America can receive a quality rotoscoped film, though.

  4. mr skin said

    Sounds like Keanu did a great job in The Lake House. I am sure my wife will want to see that one. She always wants to see chick flicks. I would never see these movies by myself. But I end up liking them. šŸ™‚

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