A Scanner Darkly
2006Director: Richard Linklater
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Winona Ryder
eep inside A Scanner Darkly is a routine moment. Two men sit across a desk from one another, one a boss, the other an employee. The boss sits casually, folding his arms behind his head and leaning way back. The employee sits uncomfortably on a small chair. Pretty common stuff, and not the least bit enlightening.
But the men intrigue. Neither is necessarily a man. Nor are they immediately women, for while they sit, both figures shift in shape, in gender, in race, complexion, hair style and color, clothing, body mass or type. Their disguised voices sometimes fizzle, like the point on the radio dial between two incoming stations. These shifts are not single mutations but constants, an endless variance, as subtle as the appearance of an earring or the cracking of a vocal pitch. More often, they involve the corruption of an entire side of the body. Yet, the two figures talk through it, as though the shifting is as normal as the cups of coffee they hold or the cigarettes they smoke.
The men are police officers wearing, we are told, scrammer suits. In this sci-fi world, adapted from Philip K. Dick’s cult-classic novel, the suits allow the men to go unidentified by the panoptic eyes of their surveillance apparatus, the scanners. In the real world, the men’s shifting appearance achieves a different sort of fluidity: it connects an old technology to a new discussion.
Following 2001’s Waking Life, A Scanner Darkly is director Richard Linklater’s second rotoscope feature (a form of animation where the figures are drawn from live-action footage). Patented in the 1910s and used in feature-length filmmaking as early as the earliest feature-length animation—Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs—rotoscope is, as a technology, about adding a level of realistic motion to the usually fantastical nature of animated worlds. With A Scanner Darkly, Linklater has a different discourse in mind.
For starters, the story is neither fantasy nor fairy tale. An undercover cop, Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves), combats a dangerous and ultra-popular drug to which he is fully addicted. The novel and film’s representation of drug makers as eco-terrorists living and working within Arctor’s highly-regulated society is a distinctly dystopian narrative, in some ways similar—with its emphasis on long tight spaces, drugs, and the battery of tests undertaken by men who run afoul of the law—to A Clockwork Orange.
That comparison might not be entirely genuine, however; A Scanner Darkly does not share much more with Kubrick’s film than a few visual similarities and an indefinite article. A Clockwork Orange is relentless. A Scanner Darkly allows its audience plenty of time to catch its breath. Linklater’s film contains long scenes and longer, slow-paced speeches. Close looks at common objects like a cell phone or a video screen make the film’s animated images seem normal over time, a version of reality. Indeed, A Scanner Darkly’s visuals are recognizable, even real. The scenery begins to look photographed over time, Keanu Reeves is still incapable of expressing convincing facial emotion; Robert Downey Jr. is, by comparison, brilliant—“awe-inspiring” as his character Berris puts it early in the film.
Rotoscope allows Linklater to occasionally play, though: the shape-shifting men, the amusing “Sins of Freck” sequence, humans working with holographic computers. At one point, Arctor’s friends turn into giant bugs. What better way than animation, Linklater says, to visualize Dick’s most frenetic story.
It’s not all fun and games. Compared to Waking Life, A Scanner Darkly is drastically restrained. The film is grounded in realistic events and much less of its scenery alters or moves. This is Linklater’s ultimate point in using rotoscope this time: A Scanner Darkly is an animation based in realism, questioning the relevance, even the safety, of fantastical illusion.
This valid artistic choice may be the film’s downfall. Linklater, doing less visually with Dick’s story than he did with Waking Life, upsets his audience’s expectations. Do not judge A Scanner Darkly on what it is not; Linklater has often walked between the experimental and the more direct. With A Scanner Darkly, he is playing that game in a single movie: popular actors, unfamiliar style. The story slows at times, but Linklater’s film is thoughtful, visually appealing, and genuinely different. Somehow, A Scanner Darkly is also well-grounded, so that its pockets of visual extravagance are emphasized by their rarity. The film’s warnings are clear: all fantasies are not safe and the greatest dangers may lie at your feet.
A Scanner Darkly is now playing in limited release.
By: Arthur Ryel-Lindsey
Published on: 2006-07-07