Director Richard Linklater has hit the jackpot again. Best known for his indie films Slacker and Dazed and Confused, he has also crossed over into the mainstream with more recent fare such as School of Rock and the Bad News Bears remake. His new adaptation of science fiction writer Phillip K Dick's novel, A Scanner Darkly, is a definite demarcation from the mainstream and a brilliant, thought provoking film. The film, while more likely destined for cult classicism and Midnight movie stardom than across the board broad-cultural acceptance, makes one think about current issues and attitudes towards the modern day issue of drugs and their acceptance or persecution in our society.
The presentation of the film is very trippy in itself. Shot live action first, the film was then animated using a technique called rotoscoping, in which each frame is animated by tracing over the live footage. Linklater was the first director to use rotoscoping to animate a whole film (see Waking Life). The technique has also been used in films such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (Prince Charming animation) and the original Star Wars Trilogy (blue glow around lightsabers). The use of animation in general and the specialized look helps to draw the viewer into the world of the film, whether they have had any personal drug experience or not. You feel like you are seeing the world through a drug-induced haze because you literally are (seeing the images through a haze, that is) and that helps you relate to the characters and their world. The film is very reminiscent of classic Midnight movies Pink Floyd: The Wall and Heavy Metal in its use of animation to present a surreal, hallucinogenic setting.
The ensemble cast of Keanu Reeves, Woody Harrelson, Robert Downy Jr., and Winona Ryder all give great performances, but it is Rory Cochrane (the pothead from Dazed and Confused) who steals the show with his depiction of Freck, a guy that is drugged out to the state of schizophrenia. When you meet Freck in the first creepy sequence of the film, he's having hallucinations that he's being attacked by green aphids. He picks them off of his body (and his dog) and ends up a blithering idiot hiding in the bathtub. Talk about bringing you into the world of the story with a bang!
The film starts out with the head caption: "Seven years from now, Anaheim," letting us know that this may be a dystopian future, but encouraging us to think about how far we are actually away from the possibility of it. Keanu Reeves plays Bob Arctor, a policeman who, when he goes undercover, is known by the identity of "Officer Fred." The undercover cops wear "scramble suits," which are camouflage clothing that constantly morph through the features of millions of registered citizens, hiding the undercover's identity. These are brilliantly animated and very effective in cloaking their wearers. So effective that "Officer Fred" gets assigned to surveillance on himself, Bob Arctor. Big Brother is in full effect in this film and we learn that the inhabitants of the world are monitored, recorded, and followed by satellites. Government agents prompt citizens through recorded announcements to "report all suspicious activity and individuals."
Bob Arctor lives in a run-down bachelor pad with his burnout buddies Barris (Downey Jr.), and Luckman (Harrelson). The banter between these three roomies is very true to life and a great part of the film. They are visited by Bob's girlfriend (Ryder), who is the hook-up for Substance D, their designer drug of choice. All of the roomies partake in the drug, including copper Bob. One might think that Bob experiences a situational addiction due to his investigation into the drug dealers, but in reality it seems that he just doesn't care. He is a representation of our own ambivalent attitude towards getting whatever it is that we want. They tolerate Freck's infrequent pop-ins because he seems to be the only other person more strung out than they are.
"Officer Fred" is assigned to monitor Arctor and scanners are placed in the house. He begins to watch recordings of himself and the other roommates, especially after one of them rats on him. Unfortunately, the drug Substance D causes brain hemisphere communication breakdown and development of split personalities. We witness Arctor's descent into an addiction so harsh, that he actually becomes a separate Officer Fred who loses his connection with his other self. Arctor is eventually busted and the big picture is revealed, although you might have to do some piecing-together to figure it out for yourself.
A Scanner Darkly is a mindfuck of a film, and it's supposed to be. You often don't know what's going on like you might have your perception altered yourself. I think that Linklater has done the best job of realistically depicting the drug experience since Gilliam's gonzo adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. But it isn't all about the glorification of getting blazed. Thematic elements are recognizable in the film: Government toleration of the cash crop of feeding addictions while maintaining a hard-line attitude about their effects on society is one. Questions about why do we as a culture choose to get so comfy with drugs, when we know the effects that might happen, is another. The messages are there, presented in a philosophical and intelligently objective way. You just have to see through the colorful haze to recognize them.
Neil Norman is a freelance writer and a graduate of the University of Central Florida. Neil also works on independent film productions.
A Scanner Darkly plays at the Enzian Theater starting July 14, 2006.