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.