A Scanner Darkly (2006)
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey, Jr., Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder, Rory Cochrane
Directed by: Richard Linklater
In A Scanner Darkly, Richard Linklater brings Phillip K. Dick‘s semi-autobiographical science fiction tale of drug abuse and government surveillance to life, employing the same animated rotoscoping technique he first employed in 2001’s unwatchable Waking Life. In doing so, he has found subject matter more interesting and dynamic than the existential debates of Waking Life, and I know this because I didn’t stop watching it ten minutes in (unlike that other movie).
The process of rotoscoping involves filming a live action movie, then going over the film and computer-painting on it to animate the characters and backgrounds. The process takes more than 500 hours to create a mere minute of footage, and delivers a striking looking movie that illustrates the disassociative world in which the characters exist. The movie tells the story of Fred (Keanu Reeves), an undercover narcotics agent combating the psychoactive drug Substance D, by posing as a user named Bob Arctor, who lives with his drug-buddies James Barris (Robert Downey Jr) and Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson), hoping to uncover a dealer higher up the delivery chain. In the process, he uses his dealer/girlfriend Donna Hawthorne (Wynona Rider) to try and meet her suppliers, all the while keeping his identity secret to his superiors through the use of holographic suits that scramble his appearance into a jumble of images of other people when in their presence.
In his pursuit of the suppliers of Substance D, Bob has taken substantial amounts of the drug himself, leading to the slow deterioration of his brain to the point where both sides of his brain are in competition with one another and Bob can no longer remember if he is Bob or Fred. The animation does an excellent job in showing us what living in the haze of SD must be like, complete with an credits sequence featuring Bob’s other friend Charles Freck (Rory Cochrane) believing himself to be infected by aphids. The surrealist nature of rotoscoping puts the audience in the mindset of the user, making the world a more interesting, yet distant, sort of place.
It’s all terribly interesting, from the ideas about drug abuse, government surveillance, the nature of the mind, the problems that occur when law enforcement attacks issues by any means necessary, even the animation itself. Unfortunately, while interesting, it isn’t that entertaining. The same techniques that do such a good job showing the dreamscape of Bob’s world also distance the audience from it. Instead of getting pulled in by Bob’s struggle for identity, and the suspenseful nature of his pursuit, the audience is left as passive observers of a strange-looking movie. Which is really unfortunate, because the movie is really close to being entertaining, and could probably be so with the same cast and same animation process. There’s just something missing to help us connect with Bob, Donna, Barris, Ernie, and Freck and their plight. I remained reasonably interested throughout, but I didn’t much care. Or at least not as much as I had hoped I would.
Ultimately, I think the movie trips on its own ambitions. It’s nice that a movie in this day and age still has ambitions, but it would be nicer if this ambitious movie was also an entertaining one. A Scanner Darkly is an interesting, well performed, visually stunning flick that’s destined to become a cult classic. Sadly, it just isn’t engaging enough to be considered a true classic.