One Pill Makes You Darker
It’s been a long and turbulent road, but Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, Before Sunset) has finally released his adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly. For those not familiar with Dick’s 1977 novel, it is a semi-autobiographical take on the perils of drug addiction, transplanted into a near-future of surveillance and corporate duplicity. A long-time devotee of the oft-adapted author, Linklater penned an immensely faithful screenplay, brought the Philip K. Dick Trust on board, and convinced big money Hollywood stars like Keanu Reaves and Robert Downey Jr. to take considerable pay-cuts (the film was made for a mere $6.7 million) to get the film made.
Linklater clearly saw A Scanner Darkly as another examination of the construction of reality in consciousness, the principal theme of his 2001 cult classic Waking Life. That film followed its protagonist (Wiley Wiggins) as he stumbled through conversations about life, free will and the vagaries of perception. To create an aesthetic that conveyed the protagonist’s tentative grasp on reality, Linklater turned to an animation technique called “interpolated rotoscoping” or “Rotoshop”. The technology, developed by the film’s art director, Bob Sabiston, allowed up to 30 animators, each in charge of different sections of the film, to draw over top of previously-shot digital footage. The effect was mesmerizing. Regardless of whether or not you enjoy Linklater’s babble about why we’re all here—I, for the record, did—you can’t deny that Sabiston’s effects lent the film a requisite sense of surreal perceptual instability.
When work on A Scanner Darkly began, Linklater was back at Sabiston’s door. However, the rotoshop inventor now proved too slow for Linklater, and he was eventually replaced by Jason Archer and Paul Beck.
The story of the film’s conception only adds to what is an incredibly intriguing, if not wholly satisfying, film. Imagine Rush meets The Parallax View meets Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch. It’s all a bit complicated but the story goes a little something like this: Keanu Reeves (the face of numb 21st century paranoia) plays an undercover cop (Fred) who has infiltrated a drug ring by masquerading as a dealer (Bob). Along the way he’s become dangerously addicted to Substance D,” a psychoactive drug that is slowly causing the right and left hemispheres of his brain to function independently. The line between “Bob” and “Fred” thus begins to blur. Suddenly, Fred is assigned to spy on Bob and his house of fellow “D” fiends: Donna (Winona Ryder), Barris (Robert Downey Jr.) and Luckman (Woody Harrelson). Then Barris appears in Fred’s office, seeking to rat-out Bob.
“But wait,” you say, “how is that possible?” Well, to ensure anonymity, all officers wear “scanner suits,” which project schizophrenic, ever-changing hologram images across their surfaces. These suits serve as potent symbols in a fictional world where Fred (or Bob, or whoever he is) soon becomes overwhelmed by reality’s instability. Only when Fred enters a drug rehabilitation program does A Scanner Darkly’s plot become clear.
It is also only in these late stages that the film’s rotoshopped style feels justified. Linklater likes to shoot dialogue rather than action. He loves to set up a camera and allow characters to relate within its frame. The early stages of the film are largely fixed inside Bob’s dingy living room, which is little more than a stage for Downey Jr.’s frenetic, verbal pyrotechnics (think Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Hunter S. Thompson) and Harrelson’s spot-on dumb-ass stoner routine. Linklater does this kind of stuff better than anyone. The actors (Downey in particular) manage to achieve moments of paranoid comic perfection. The only problem is that, in such instances, the animation is alienating. The rotoshopping works well when Keanu starts seeing William Burroughs-style visions, but adds a seemingly unnecessary distance to scenes where actors who’ve experienced real battles with drugs are no-doubt channeling past experiences. Given the way the plot ultimately turns (and I won’t ruin it for anyone), the animation makes intellectual sense. But one can only hope the DVD will include Linklater’s original digital footage.
A Scanner Darkly is now playing at the Varsity (55 Bloor St. W., 416-961-6303).“