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Arts & Culture

Review: 'A Scanner Darkly'

Keanu Reeves as Bob Arctor in "A Scanner Darkly."
Keanu Reeves as Bob Arctor in "A Scanner Darkly."

Tripping On Philip K. Dick

When writer-director Richard Linklater first thought about making "Waking Life," he raised this question: How do you make a film about something that most likely happens entirely in the mind? That question could also apply to his latest film, "A Scanner Darkly."

To convey the dream-state of both films, Linklater shot and edited on digital video and then put it through a computer animating process called "interpolated rotoscoping." The process is a high-tech version of the old rotoscoping process, an animation technique developed back in the early part of the last century by Max Fleischer. Fleischer's rotoscope combined a film projector and an easel allowing for single frames from a strip of film to be projected on the back of a glass surface. The projected image could then be traced onto paper cels and re-photographed as part of the normal animation process. This allowed for live action footage to be turned into animation that flowed more realistically. Now with computer technology, the process has been made both easier to do and more complex in terms of the possibilities.

Linklater's "interpolated rotoscoping" in both "Waking Life" and now "A Scanner Darkly" creates a very impressionistic style of animation. The software allows elements, colors, objects, brush strokes to kind of float from frame to frame. This free form, slightly unstable visual style is perfect for the surreal, altered-state experiences of the two films. "A Scanner Darkly" has had an interesting trip to the screen. Dick had never been eager to see any of his novels adapted to the screen. In fact, he was once quoted as saying: "You would have to kill me and prop me up in the seat of my car with a smile painted on my face to get me to go near Hollywood." He never lived to see a film made from his work but before he died in 1982 he did see a portion of Blade Runner (based on his story "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?") completed and was supposedly pleased and surprised. "A Scanner Darkly" at one point boasted a script by Charlie Kaufman (the man who penned "Being John Malkovich" and "The Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind"). Later Terry Gilliam, who brought Hunter S. Thompson's drug experiences to the screen in "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," wanted to do an adaptation. Both those filmmakers had an aptitude for the kind of surreal terrain Dick's novel covered, and might have been able to create a more visually inspired film than Linklater has created. But Linklater is enamored with the ideas explored in the book and uses his animation technique to mostly good effect.


For the book, Dick employed the trappings of a sci-fi thriller to tell a story based on his own debilitating drug experiences of the 70s. Playing off of a recurrent theme in his work, Dick once again offers a main character who discovers that his world is not exactly what he thought it was. The world as he knows it is essentially about to collapse.

In "A Scanner Darkly," Dick ponders, "What does a scanner see? Does a scanner see into me? Into us? Clearly or darkly?" In the not too distant future described by Dick, scanners see just about everything as America continues to wage a massive but seemingly futile war on drugs and terror. Part of that war is constant surveillance of its citizens. Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) is an undercover cop who's experiencing some doubts about the value and morality of his work. For his job, he must assume two identities. Bob is supposedly his real identity, which is kept hidden by a "scramble suit," an ever-changing disguise that prevents any one and even the scanners from seeing who he really is. His other identity is that of Fred, a sort of slacker who's living with a pair of off kilter roommates, Jim Barris (Robert Downey Jr.) and Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson). Bob has been ordered to start spying on his roommates as well as his friends Donna Hawthorne (Winona Ryder) and Charles Freck (Rory Cochrane). Then he gets the startling instructions to also start spying on Fred, that?s because not even his bosses know that Bob and Fred are one in the same person. This sets him off on a journey filled with paranoia and tangled identities.

Linklater sought approval from Dick's two daughters before making the film and he displays a sincere respect for the material. He taps into the paranoia, perceptual distortions, and hallucinogenic ambiguities of the book. But he doesn't use the animation to its fullest potential. There are scenes with the scramble suit and with characters turning into bugs (recalling "Naked Lunch"-style imagery) that work well. There's also a scene in which Bob checks a scanner to try an confirm exactly who he slept with because the woman seems to have shape shifted in front of him. In these moments the animation captures a sense of the fluid nature of Bob's reality. But Linklater might have served the film better by mixing the animation with live action, or varying the style of the animation to reflect Bob?s ever-shifting reality. The novelty of his animation style, like the photo-realistic computer graphics of "Final Fantasy," can be distracting and draw attention away from the story. Linklater's work proves to be a less inspired visual style than say someone like Gilliam or Kaufman might have been able to fashion.

But then Linklater has never really been that interested in visuals. Think of his film "Slacker," "Dazed and Confused," or even "Before Sunrise" None of those films displayed a real visual flair. Instead, Linklater is much more into verbal showmanship. Shakespeare described the character of Mercutio as a man "who loves to hear himself talk and will speak more in a minute than he will stand to in a month." That pretty much sums up Richard Linklater's films and his latest one is no exception.

"A Scanner Darkly" engages in a philosophical dialogue in a manner that, along with its mind-altering mood, seems distinctly aimed at the college crowd that took to Linklater's "Slacker"And there's a definite appeal to a film that wants to engage us in an exchange of ideas about drug use, free will, overly intrusive governments, betrayal and the grind of daily life. The film offers some bleak commentary but Linklater also finds some humorous diversion in the absurdities of life and the eccentricities of the characters (especially Barris and Freck).


"A Scanner Darkly" (rated R for drug and sexual content, language and brief violence) is more interesting for the ideas it considers (everything from drug use to a police state society or questions of free will) than for the novelty of its visual design. If you like Linklater and Philip K. Dick, you should enjoy the film's provocative themes.

Companion viewing: "Naked Lunch," "Blade Runner," "Waking Life," "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas"