Review: A Scanner Darkly


Although Richard Linklater’s new film, A Scanner Darkly, features a cast of bankable, highly recognizable actors, you won’t see them onscreen, or at least not in the way you’re accustomed to. That’s because everything and everyone in the film has been rotoscoped, a process by which footage of the actors has been digitally traced and painted, giving the look of an animated comic book panel. Since it’s based on a Philip K. Dick novel, the plot is difficult to convey briefly, but it goes something like this: Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) is one of a group of burnouts hopelessly addicted to the paranoia-inducing Substance D. But Bob is actually Fred, the federal agent assigned to monitor these dopers in hopes of making a bust higher up the ladder. Even his superiors in the feds don’t know his real identity, since Fred always meets with them while wearing a scramble suit. This cool little jumpsuit constantly shuffles random facial features, clothing and hairstyles to grant the wearer total anonymity. The fact that Fred is basically spying and reporting on himself among others (Winona Ryder plays Donna, who is both his dealer and girlfriend), combined with the fact that he may be cracking up from the effects of his job-related Substance D addiction set the stage for a schizo freakout of epic proportions. Considering the original novel was published in 1976, the story seems eerily contemporary, with its themes of identity crises, pharmacological conspiracies and mass surveillance. Dick’s work is infamous for being bastardized by Hollywood, but Linklater’s script actually adheres quite closely to the source material, with entire passages of dialogue unchanged. Linklater tends to make talky talkies, and perfectly handles Dick’s mile-a-minute druggie chatter, delivered most notably in the form of Robert Downey Jr.s psychotic chatterbox Jim Barris. Talking far less is Reeves, who seems to have mastered his craft as an actor to the point he can now say “whoa” without uttering a single syllable. But the real question here is: why use the rotoscoping technique at all? Linklater used it once before in Waking Life, and it’s recently been seen in TV commercials as well, so at this point it seems more a novelty than a visual innovation. But while the look is initially distracting, the 2-D, slightly-skewed perspective fits perfectly with the drug-addled surrealism and concentric plot circles, and pretty soon those animated people onscreen start to seem less like movie stars and more like the paranoid androids we’ve all become.


1 Response to “Review: A Scanner Darkly”

  1. March 12, 2009 at 2:10 pm

    It’s funny how Reeves will forever be associated with nimrod-dum, even though he’s been cast in roles/films associated with crazy intelligent sci-fi writers such as Philip K. Dick and William Gibson (assuming crazy, intelligent & sci-fi all go hand in hand depending on your tastes in literature & crazy).

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