Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly took almost two years to complete and finally arrived in American cinemas in July but was greeted with a collective shrug. Finally released in Australia this week, I was eager to discover whether the problem with Scanner was that it failed to work as a cohesive film in its own right. As a Philip K. Dick fan, I was also ecstatic at the prospect of seeing the very first faithful adaptation of his work for the screen. Even Blade Runner uses Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? as inspiration rather than source text, resulting in a largely distinctive text where Dick’s themes and ideas are glimpsed rather than fully discerned. The freedom of a small budget has allowed Richard Linklater to adapt A Scanner Darkly close to the original bone, especially since the novel features little SF imagery. However, the rotoscoping of animation on top of the live-action makes this seem as otherworldly as the best of Dick.
Seven years in the future, a new drug called Substance D has hit it big, with over 20% of the population addicted. Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) is one, living in a ramshackle house with two other junkies: scheming knowledge-sponge Jim Barris (Robert Downey, Jr.) and exasperated Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson). Arctor’s girlfriend, Donna (Winona Ryder), is also their dealer, but Bob is actually a cop working undercover, who remains unseen by his police colleagues by wearing a regulation scramble suit, which replaces his own visage with a constantly shimmering display of thousands of others. But due to taking Substance D, Arctor is starting to lose track of who he is inside the house and out of it, especially when his unknowing colleagues order him to use bugs to essentially spy on himself in order to discover the source of Substance D.
Like the novel, A Scanner Darkly’s storyline is difficult to discern, especially in terms of how Arctor’s household fits into the grander plan regarding Substance D. But this doesn’t matter too much, as the film’s Dick-ian ambience of intense paranoia is enthralling enough in its surrealism to usher you through. This is accomplished largely through the rotoscoped animation, whose shimmering outlines and facades that resemble reality while leeched of detail heighten our perception of this world as being determined by the drug experience or even a product of it. The work that went into this was painstaking: 18 months of animation following a 23 day live-action shoot, but some have questioned its necessity, especially since the unreal, science fiction images are remarkably few. But I can’t imagine the live-action version of this film being anywhere near as infectious and insidious. With its vague boundaries, the animation seems to creep into your brain and scratch at its surface, fulfilling Dick’s ongoing theme of the invasion and compromise of the individual by external forces. Without the animation and its archetypal abilities, Scanner would be too distanced from the viewer; our understanding of the character’s plight actually comes in part from these unnerving cartoons.
The actors contribute a great deal to this too though. Reeves gives his loosest, most emotive performance in a long time, nailing the crucial role of Arctor. Downey is typically tremendous as the demented Barris, source of much of the film’s humour, often very black – this is a very funny film, both in the dialogue and the interaction between Downey, Harrelson, and Rory Cochrane as the delusional Charles Freck. Harrelson doesn’t get a great deal to do, but Ryder is pretty good, reminding us of her glory days – hopefully she can pull it together and get her career back on track. And on that note, let me say how fucking awesome it is that Downey is back in the fast lane. He’s one of the absolute best actors around – hell, I even want to buy his season of Ally McBeal on DVD because he was so damn entertaining on that show. Even in a quick shoot like A Scanner Darkly, Downey proves his immense value- kudos that man, and kudos to Linklater, as he’s perfect for Barris.
This is one of the most adventurous films in a long time, experimenting with a bold new filmmaking style, offering science fiction but with few of the familiar tropes, and featuring an often-impenetrable plot, all in the name of telling a very personal story by Philip K. Dick about the devastation of drug addiction. Whether it receives a Blade Runner-esque critical reappraisal can’t be predicted, but this is a lot better than it’s been made out to be. Check it out.