I don’t get out to the cinema often these days. But there are certain classes of film that I will always make an effort to see in the theater, among them:
- Movies based on the work of Phillip K. Dick
- Animated movies aimed at an adult audience
- Movies written and directed by Richard Linklater
As A Scanner Darkly falls into all three categories, I was pretty much obligated to see it.
On the debits side of the ledger, we have this: the film stars Keanu Reeves. I don’t really mind Reeves, but as the Matrix trilogy has a very heavy Phillip K. Dick influence, I was a little worried that this would just become the fourth in the series. Fortunately, Reeves spends much of the film looking and acting befuddled (the one type of dramatic role he invariably excels at), a far cry from the demigod of Neo. And the performances of his colleagues — Woody Harlson, Mitch Baker, and Robert Downey Jr. in particular — more than compensate for Reeves’ limited range.
The film is set in a near future where a drug called Substance-D is destroying America. Reeves’ character Bob Arctor, for instance, is hooked on the stuff, and it’s slowly eroding his ability to tell reality from fantasy. He spends half of his time lollygagging around his pad with other addicts, and the other half working for law enforcement, where he has been assigned to spy on … himself. One of the perks of working as a uncover narc in the future, it seems, is that you get to wear a “scramble suit,” which conceals your identity from everyone — even your superiors, who may inadvertently charge you with monitoring your drug-addled alter ego.
Scanner uses a technique called “rotoscoping, in which live-action footage is traced over and converted to animation. It is particularly well-suited to this tale, as it falls in animation’s uncanny valley: it looks artificial enough to be perceived as animation, but realistic enough to put the audience on edge. In short, it makes the viewer feel like he, like the protagonists, has recently ingested a sizable quantity of illicit substances. It’s hard to even criticize the technique, as even its deficiencies work in the context of Scanner. One thing that bothered me was how components of large objects would sometimes appear to move independent of the thing they were attached to — the headlights of cars, for instance. And yet, these irksome details just served to heighten my feeling of hazyheadedness, the exact effect I assume Linklater was shooting for when he choose rotoscoping in the first place.
Unlike most films inspired by the work of Dick, A Scanner Darkly is based on a full length novel and is a faithful adaptation of the source material. Or so I’m told. I read A Scanner Darkly a number of years ago, but couldn’t really remember anything about it. Seeing the film didn’t so much remind me of how the novel went as remind me why I found it so difficult to recall.
Both the book and the film fall under the rubric of “complete mindfuck.” That is, most of the time you’re not sure what’s going on, and, even when you do, you’re not sure whether the events are real. As a result, you tend to sequester everything you see into a a little mental cubbyhole marked “Conditional,” ready to purge it if a subsequent revelation reveals this particular scene to be false, or take it out and stamp it “authentic” if it is later verified as real. Unfortunately, you never really get any confirmation one way or the other in Scanner, so you walk out of the film with a head full of loose puzzle pieces instead of a complete picture. And we all know what happens to loose pieces over time: you lose them, one by one. I saw the film last week and already can only remember half of it.
I met up with some friends after seeing the film, and they asked me what I thought. “I don’t know,” I told them, “I need to think it over for a day.” That was last Saturday, and I still haven’t made up my mind. I liked it, I guess, but film and the animation style were so self-referential that I kind of felt like they all added up to nothing, like a snake that swallows its own tail and vanishes from sight. Admittedly, that analogy doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. But, then again, the same may be true of the film. I have no idea.