A Scanner Darkly

Normally I’m not a huge fan of the rotoscoping technique; it tends to look jarring and awkward when put up against regular keyframed animation, be it hand-drawn or CGI (though that tends to have plenty of live action reference). However, it has been used well in different ways by certain filmmakers, most notably the likes of the Fleischer brothers, Don Bluth, Steven Spielberg in his Tintin movie, and in today’s entry, Richard Linklater in his adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly. With the help of Bob Sabiston, who had worked with him on Waking Life (though sadly Sabiston was kicked off this project mid-stream thanks to production woes), Linklater creates a great, almost comic-book style to depict the near-future goings-on and drugged-out characters of the story.

Said story is often meandering and goes down dead ends, but that fits the tone of the whole enterprise, focusing on the increasing paranoia and blurred identities of the cast. At the center is Fred (Keanu Reeves), an undercover cop investigating a household for links to the manufacturers of a dangerously addictive drug called Substance D. His roommates include the likes of Barris (Robert Downey, Jr.), Luckman (Woody Harrelson), Charles Freck (Rory Cochrane) and Donna (Winona Ryder). Adding further complications is that Fred has been ordered to spy on his own alter ego, Bob Arctor, since he and his superiors keep their identities secret from each other through the use of “scramble suits” (an ingenious visual effect). As things spiral out of control, Fred/Bob begins to ask himself that age old question: what is real?

I have never taken drugs myself, or been around many people who have taken them, but despite this, there seems to be an eerie verisimilitude to the performances and writing of these characters, ready to turn on each other for the most mundane reasons. An argument about the number of gears on a bike manages to be by turns hilarious and terrifying, the hallucinations are more convincing than they might have been in live action, and a late-film reveal calls everything we thought we knew about the plot into question. The actors all put in excellent work. I feel like Keanu Reeves gets a bad rap for not emoting as much or underplaying things, but I tend to think that works for a lot of his characters. He has a couple monologues here that benefit greatly from his matter-of-fact monotone. Downey is scarily charismatic as usual, and one wonders if there is an alternate universe where he ended up playing supervillains instead of Tony Stark thanks to roles like this. Harrelson provides some welcome comic relief, Cochrane gets excellent mileage out of his Jeremy Davies-esque twitchiness, and Ryder brings some interesting shades to Donna, especially by the end.

The film is curiously non-judgmental in its portrayal of drug users. It probably helps that Dick was one in real life, and had many friends who were, but the anger in the film seems directed more at the manufacturers, rehab facilities and the ineffectual time-wasting of the police going after burnouts like Barris or Freck to try and get to a higher level. The ending, with the horrifying revelation made about the New Path rehab company, seems to reinforce this. There’s a slight glimmer of hope at the end, but the user-rehab-police cycle is shown to be a vicious one. The heartbreaking list of friends and colleagues Dick lost to drug use at the end (including himself-“Phil”) doesn’t help.

All in all, A Scanner Darkly is an excellent curiosity. It tackles material I wish was tackled in American animation more often, and in ways that find dark humor and sadness in the proceedings. Ultimately I was left a little cold emotionally, but it was still very compelling and intriguing in its way.

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