Though I’m not usually a fan of drug movies, I was curious to see Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly, because it was based on a novel by sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick. Dick is the author of the books that were later turned into the movies Blade Runner and Total Recall. A Scanner Darkly also employs a unique animation style called Rotoscope. Basically the movie is shot like a regular movie and then animated so that everything still looks kind of real. The animation gives the film a graphic novel kind of look. The story is a bit confusing, because in the drug addled world of A Scanner Darkly it’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s not.
Keanu Reeves plays Robert Arctor, also known as Agent Fred, an undercover spy, assigned to infiltrate a drug operation. In the not so distant future a new drug, Substance D, has become the most popular and most dangerous drug around. Substance D is a highly addictive narcotic that causes extreme paranoia and hallucinations. Arctor immerses himself with a group of friends, James (Robert Downey Jr.), Ernie (Woody Harrelson), and Charles (Rory Cochrane). It is not long before Arctor is so entrenched in the drug culture he begins to lose his own identity. He too becomes addicted to Substance D and is unable to distinguish between his undercover character and his real life.
A Scanner Darkly, at its core, is about identity. Arctor has lost himself in an effort to make society better by fighting the war on drugs. The spies are so undercover in their mission they don’t even know each other. When interacting at their headquarters they wear Scramble Suits. The suits constantly rotate voice, faces, skin color, gender, and clothing, making it impossible to know who they really are. Personal relationships for the spies are nearly impossible. Arctor once had a wife and children, but they have disappeared from his life. It could be they left because the pressure of his undercover work tore them apart, or it’s possible Arctor became so lost in his character he forgot about them. Arctor has a new girlfriend (Winona Ryder), but he can’t seem to make things work with her either. James, Ernie, and Charles have also lost themselves. They spend their time in drug addled confusion, and are constantly paranoid they have been infiltrated by the government spies.
A Scanner Darkly is somewhat fascinating, somewhat repulsive, and a lot confusing. It’s not easy to figure out what everyone is trying to accomplish. That all might be by design, but it makes for difficult viewing. The biggest question to be asked is why animate a movie that was already filmed in live action? According the animation featurette included in the special features, hundreds of hours were required for the Rotoscope animation, and it certainly had to have added greatly to the film’s budget. Personally, I think the unique animation style, created the atmosphere for the entire film. The animation is a part of the story. Kind of real and kind of not, is the essence of what the movie is about. Substance D has created a loss of reality, yet all the characters are still living, and still experiencing some kind of life. They go through life either in a hallucinogenic daze or disguised in a Scramble Suit. It’s reality, but not reality at the same time.
On Blu-ray, the picture looks spectacular. The Rotoscope animation is recreated perfectly and the creepy surreal-real, but not real setting is brought to life (so to speak). The video is presented in 1080p HD. The colors are crisp and clear, and the definition could not be better. The opening scene in which Charles thinks he has bugs crawling all over him (and his poor dog) is just as disturbing as if the scene existed on regular live action film. The bugs pop out of the screen in agonizing detail.
The sound is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 running at 640 kbps. Sometimes the sound seems a little muddled, but it could be because it’s a muddled world all the characters live in. Sometimes the dialogue seemed a little thin and I found myself missing a word every now and then. As far a special features go, there is the aforementioned animation featurette, a making of documentary, which utilizes archival interviews with Philip K. Dick, and a commentary by Linklater, Reeves, Isa Dick Hackett (Philip K. Dick’s daughter), Tommy Pallotta (producer), and Jonathan Lethem (a Philip K. Dick historian).