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Taking a Dim View of "A Scanner Darkly"

by on August 11, 2006

There are few science fiction writers who have had as large of an impact on pop culture as Philip K. Dick. Underappreciated in his own time, Dick’s prolific imagination rooted itself in the belief that objective reality did not truly exist – a perception exacerbated by a powerful sense of paranoia and a long stretch of substance abuse. However, his fearlessness and experimental fiction served as a perfect platform for exploring social and political themes, using thinly veiled science-fiction parallels to real-world objects and concepts. Like many great artists, he proved to be remarkably ahead of his time.

Fred/Bob ArctorIn his latest film, director Richard Linklater takes on Dick’s 1977 novel A Scanner Darkly, which defies easy classification even when summarizing the plot. In a future “seven years from now,” a highly addictive drug named “Substance D” is slowly destroying the population. Keanu Reeves plays “Fred,” an anonymous undercover police officer working to infiltrate the drug supply chain as a dealer named Bob Arctor. This game of cat and mouse takes a twisted funhouse turn when his superiors order him to increase surveillance on himself. The strange assignment combined with an increasing dependence on Substance D puts Fred in a race to uncover the drug kingpin before completely losing his grip on reality.

Linklater uses the same computer-assisted rotoscoping animation techniques as in his 2001 film Waking Life. Live-action film is converted by computer into a highly stylized, flattened environment. Motion capture is an old technique in animation, used as far back as Winsor McKay and the Fleischer Brothers, and remains a popular method as The Polar Express and Monster House attest. The “Rotoshop” software used in Waking Life has gotten an upgrade, making the reproduction of live-action movement even more accurate.

Bug invasionUnfortunately, the rotoscoping techniques on display in A Scanner Darkly are so accurate in reproducing every actor’s twitch, gesture, and nervous tic that the end result makes the viewer wonder why the movie wasn’t just a live-action film in the first place. The highly accurate rotoscoping only begs the question why this technique was even necessary. With precious few exceptions, there simply wasn’t any need for this movie to be animated at all.

Scramble Suits -- you kind of have to be thereSadly, those exceptions prove to be a maddening window to a far better film. The moments when imagination is given free reign are easily the most effective moments of the movie and completely justify the decision to use animation. The gripping opening sequence is a Substance D-induced hallucination of a horde of aphids crawling all over actor Rory Cochrane’s character, and a later sequence where an alien with a thousand eyes stands over a suicide is wickedly imaginative and deeply disturbing. Easily the best justification for animation is the “scramble suit” that insulates Reeves’ character from others. Depicted as a constantly shifting patchwork of body parts and clothing, the scramble suits are a marvelous trick that works far better in animation than any live-action special effect.

Beyond the technical issues, most of the creative instincts that served Linklater so well in Waking Life (and his much earlier Dazed and Confused) do not serve A Scanner Darkly well. Waking Life was a disjointed series of conversations, often contradictory and tenuously connected to each other. The animation in Waking Life was craftily used to embellish conversations at key points; one was never sure when a verbal point in a discussion would receive a visual expression. The meandering nature of the earlier film fit well with its themes of exploration and turned its lack of a straightforward narrative into a feature, not a bug.

Woody Harrelson and Robert Downey Jr. AnimatedThese same storytelling tendencies only serve to make A Scanner Darkly an exercise in narrative frustration. Linklater proves far too willing to allow the actors in this film to engage in seemingly drug-induced digressions that stop the narrative dead in its tracks. These scenes where Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., and Woody Harrelson clown around are wildly entertaining and almost entirely gratuitous at the same time. Whether or not these scenes were faithful to the source material, the end result is a nearly incomprehensible mess.

A Scanner Darkly demonstrates that one of animation’s greatest strengths is the complete visual consistency that it grants a filmmaker. The scramble suits and hallucinatory thousand-eyed devils fit in perfectly with more mundane objects like dogs and cars and pencil cups. It is often all too easy to tell what’s “real” and what’s an effect in live-action films, as when Legolas or Superman changes from a flesh-and-blood actor into a computer model. Animation eliminates this transition – since everything on screen is artificial, nothing ever has to look fake. One of the greatest strengths of animation is its ability to create a seamless transition between manufactured effects and real-life action, with the nightmarish visions of A Scanner Darkly acting as elegant proof of this assertion.

The most frustrating thing about A Scanner Darkly is that Linklater seems to recognize these strengths of animation, but is ultimately unable to capitalize on them consistently. There is nothing more disappointing than an experiment that almost worked.

Bird Boy has additionally written a review of the DVD release titled, “A Scanner Darkly”: What Does a Scanner See? Confusion and Delight.

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