Apr 23, 2020
A Scanner Darkly (2006)
Compared to most adaptations of the works of legendary sci-fi author Philip K. Dick (Total Recall, Blade Runner, Next, to name just a few), the animated film A Scanner Darkly is extremely faithful to its source material. But that’s not necessarily a good thing.
Keanu Reeves is “Fred”, a narcotics agent operating in Anaheim, California “seven years from now”, according to the opening caption. “Fred” has been assigned to locate the source of a new street drug called Substance D, a pill that leads to extreme brain damage in its users. As part of his assignment, he goes undercover as Bob Arctor, a junkie who lives with two junkie friends (Robert Downey Jr. and Woody Harrelson) while trying to make time with a junkie chick (Winona Ryder).
At the start of the movie, all four of them are already living with the unpleasant side effects of Substance D: namely, hallucinations and massive paranoia. Eventually, the drug causes a schism in Fred’s brain and he develops a split personality: as he diligently studies video surveillance of Bob Arctor, he slowly starts to forget that he is in fact Bob Arctor. In essence, he ends up narcing on himself.
The original 1977 novel was adapted by Richard Linklater, and just like Linklater’s Waking Life, A Scanner Darkly consists entirely of rotoscoped animation. Live-action footage of the cast was painstakingly traced over by a team of animators over the course of 18 months. The movie certainly looks amazing, right down to the stylized animated version of Keanu’s patchy beard, but in the end, the technique doesn’t prove to be all that necessary to the story.
I will say one thing for the rotoscoping: it allows the filmmakers to realize one of the most unfilmable concepts from the book: The “scramble suit”, which all undercover operatives wear to protect their identities while out in public. When looking at someone wearing a scramble suit, all you see is a constant shuffling of facial features: one person’s eye here, another person’s mouth there, and so on. It’s a disorienting, trippy visual, and who needs drugs when you can just watch the scramble suit?
Linklater probably seemed like a natural fit for this movie, given it’s a film about stoners, or more specifically, a film about stoners having endless stoner conversations. From his very first film Slacker, Linklater has shown a fondness for filming everyday people having lengthy, pseudo-intellectual conversations. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean he knows how to make these conversations all that interesting to watch.
I give him kudos for hiring actors with their own real life drug problems: Woody Harrelson (arrested for growing pot), Winona Ryder (busted for shoplifting, blamed it on painkillers), and Robert Downey Jr. (no explanation necessary). And when good actors are onscreen together doing a script that speaks to their own personal troubles, you expect the magic to happen and sparks to fly off the screen. Unfortunately, every scene sort of meanders around, with much of the dialogue delivered without much intensity.
This is odd, considering a lot of the script is taken verbatim from the book, and the book is often very funny. I can only conclude that the cast didn’t have a whole lot of chemistry. I would guess this is due to one particular weak link, but to be polite I won’t say who, other than to note that not even the rotoscoping can make Keanu Reeves all that expressive.
Those who haven’t read the book and only know Philip K. Dick’s rep for serious sci-fi are bound to be disappointed. Other than the scramble suit and a few other futuristic doodads, the movie could just as easily take place in modern-day California. In fact, watching it seven years later, it already seems dated; when “Fred” spies on his own alter-ego, it seems like a quaint riff on Bush-era warrantless wiretapping. (Though, the topic certainly has seen a resurgance of late. As Bob and Company drive around in cars with license plates displaying bar codes instead of numbers, I could only think of this recent story.)
Linklater has said he used rotoscoping on A Scanner Darkly because he felt there was a serious lack of animated films made specifically for adults. I appreciate the sentiment, but I do wish the technique and the thousands of man-hours had been reserved for a film that wasn’t so frustratingly low-key.
Still, the movie is worthwhile viewing for fans of the book, because in the end it’s a pretty faithful adaptation. Though, ultimately, A Scanner Darkly might be all the explanation we need for why most PKD stories generally don’t get faithful adaptations.