A Scanner Darkly
Richard Linklater’s movie version of Philip K. Dick’s novel A Scanner Darkly, reportedly planned for release in September 2005, is finally out, delayed by the complex rotoscoping process Linklater applies to the material, the same technique he used in his 2001 film Waking Life.
Rotoscoping looks like animation, but it isn’t. The practice was invented and patented by producer Max Fleischer in the early days of silent movies as an animation shortcut. Fleischer photographed live-action footage and then traced each individual frame on animation paper and photographed it again, adding embellishments as needed. Animators who create their characters, backgrounds and actions from scratch have always regarded rotoscoping as something of a cheat, but nearly all of them have resorted to it when money and time ran short—even Walt Disney himself (look at the Prince in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs).
What Linklater did in Waking Life employed computer software rather than tracing paper and paint, but the principle was essentially the same: He shot his film in live action and then transformed it into something visually striking, with elements of both fantasy and a kind of heightened realism, turning even the most familiar images into alien landscapes upon which we looked with wide new eyes. If anything, this process is even more appropriate for adapting A Scanner Darkly than it was to Linklater’s original script for Waking Life; the painted, slightly disorienting look is a good match for the sinister, seriocomic, drug-addled world of the book.
Dick’s novel, published in 1977, was set in 1994, and Linklater’s movie has the same near-future feel to it. The movie’s central character is an undercover narcotics agent with the code name of “Fred” (Keanu Reeves). And he’s literally undercover; when he’s at police headquarters, he wears a “scramble suit”—a head-to-toe disguise that modifies his voice and constantly shifts his appearance, changing faces and clothes from one second to the next, like a ghost. The suit is standard issue for everyone, so that not even the agents themselves know each other’s identities.
It is only out in the real world that they remove the suits and go about as themselves. Out there, Fred is Bob Arctor, an Anaheim slacker who hangs out with his housemates, Barris (Robert Downey Jr.) and Luckman (Woody Harrelson), and with drug dealer Donna Hawthorne (Winona Ryder). As part of his cover, Arctor has been using the insidious drug known as Substance D, and it’s come to affect his grip on reality—especially after “Fred” is assigned to carry out video surveillance of “Bob Arctor,” and Barris comes to headquarters to inform on him, never suspecting that his police contact is none other than the scramble-suited Arctor himself.
Between the antihero’s increasingly bifurcated perceptions (is he Fred spying on Bob, or Bob spying on Fred?) and the drugged-out non sequiturs of his conversations with Barris and Luckman (there’s a hilariously paranoid episode when the three get a flat tire on the Santa Ana Freeway), Fred/Bob’s sense of himself becomes tenuous indeed, and Linklater’s rotoscoping comes to seem more and more inspired. The characters seem to be surrounded by the movie’s universe but not really part of it, the strangely literal realism of their movements belied by a sense almost of weightlessness as they hover in place rather than sitting or standing where they appear to be. Linklater has found a visual metaphor for both the whacked-out psychoses of the movie’s druggies and the emotional detachment of Agent Fred and his law-enforcement colleagues.
Ultimately, this detachment becomes the mainspring of the movie. Linklater holds the viewer aloof from his characters and doesn’t involve the audience with them on an emotional level. The film ends with a written passage from Philip K. Dick himself, paying tribute to several of the writer’s drug-damaged friends—“punished,” he says, “entirely too much for what they did.” The epigraph hints at a depth of feeling that the rest of the movie tends to withhold, and what has held our interest as a cunning visual and dramatic puzzle ends on a note of real compassion.