The secret to a successful viewing of Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly is not to put yourself in a drug-addled state, regardless of how many other benefits that may have, nor is it to ready yourself for another one of Keanu Reeves’ sci-fi films or to listen to the new Thom Yorke album on repeat or read as much Philip K. Dick as you can get your hands on. The secret is to get used to the animation as quickly as possible.
The entire film, as I’m sure you’ve heard, was done using rotoscoping, a technique by which animators draw over live-action footage–one frame at a time. The result is a surreal image that allows for whimsical flourishes, a cheap and effective way to alter what’s on-screen, and some cool special effects. It’s the same process Linklater used to great effect in Waking Life (2001), his trippy rumination on dreams.
Waking Life was the first feature film done entirely with rotoscoping, and while the images were at times spectacular, they were also crude–a natural result of any emerging technology. The intervening years have allowed rotoscoping guru Bob Sabiston to refine his art form and what he’s produced in A Scanner Darkly is an animation that looks cartoonish, yet at the same time feels more real than some of the live-action films you’ll see this summer. Gone is the feeling in Waking Life of a protagonist floating through life, replaced by the feeling that what you’re seeing is life altered by a couple of degrees. Such is the potential of rotoscoping that I imagine Sabiston could achieve both these effects using the same core footage.
And just as the animation served a narrative purpose in Waking Life, here Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) is a few clicks off his equilibrium in large part thanks to Substance D, a designer drug that, among other things, promotes paranoia. Arctor, along with his friends (Rory Cochrane, Robert Downey, Jr., and Woody Harrelson) is addicted to D, yet his job is part of a task force investigating whether Arctor is dealing D out of his house. All this is possible because the task force wears scramble suits to protect their identities. The suits, which project an ever-rotating litany of identities, make it impossible to determine who someone is. They also give the animation a chance to shine, working in ways that live action coupled with CGI never could.
The plot falters, as most futuristic films do, when attempting to provide some historical context and “feel” like the future. And while Linklater wisely downplays that angle, there’s still the nagging sense of a story about the future written in the past, complete with all the projections of what the future entails. Sure, there are no flying cars and Linklater keeps the story grounded in the present-day as much as possible, but the feeling is still there, hovering in the background. If it sounds like I’m nit-picking, it’s because there’s something about A Scanner Darkly that just misses the intended mark and my best guess is that the problem lies somewhere in the source material. Having not read the source material, I can’t be sure what it is exactly. I can only make rough assumptions. It’s just that the majority of the problems in A Scanner Darkly are problems with story–the ending, for example, is a little too convenient–and we’ve seen enough of Linklater’s storytelling to know that what doesn’t work here isn’t found in his other films. It feels like it comes from a different world-view. Ergo, it’s probably from the novel.
For the most part the actors do a serviceable job, even if they appear at times unsure how to play a scene that’ll later be animated. Reeves, in particular, seems to be compensating in places, and Robert Downey, Jr. plays his character with a full-fledged abandon that occasionally goes too far, but his portrayal of paranoia is as good as you’ll find in film. Likewise, Rory Cochrane gives a very good performance as a man deeply addicted and struggling with demons that may or may not be real.
But in a film like this, nothing’s actually “real”. Everything is limited, in one way or another by perception–by what we think we see, by what everyone else thinks they see, and what the scanner sees. For these characters, though, what’s most important, or at least of the most immediate concern, is what they think the scanners see. Such is the curse of paranoia.
 It should be noted that Sabiston was replaced during production due to issues surrounding the amount of time it was taking for the animation to be completed. Still, the ideas and software are his.
starring: Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey, Jr., Winona Ryder, Rory Cochrane, and Woody Harrelson
written by: Richard Linklater, based on the novel by Philip K. Dick
directed by: Richard Linklater
R, 100 min, 2006, USA