What if I told you there was an upcoming science fiction film that stars Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Winona Ryder, and Woody Harrelson?
What if I told you that film was based on a story written by the same guy who gave us Blade Runner, Total Recall, and Minority Report? And imagine that film was directed by experimental director Richard Linklater.
Would you be interested in that movie?
Well, it’s already been made.
The movie is A Scanner Darkly and it was released in 2006.
A Scanner Darkly is a trippy animated film about Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves), an undercover cop in California who is so secretive that he wears a scramble suit that hides his identity by creating a constant blur of different physical attributes. He lives in a near future where America has lost its war on drugs. Bob and his friends are taking an insidious drug called Substance D and he’s been given the absurd task of investigating himself. Bob spends his work days observing tapes of himself and live feeds of what’s happening in his house. If all this sounds a little crazy that’s only part of what goes on this film.
A Scanner Darkly presents a delicate balance between comedy and satire and tragedy. The look of this film is one of the most effective elements that director Richard Linklater has employed. The style is singularly unique, but it also serves a purpose. Bob is going through hallucinations and paranoia and disassociative disorder, and the swirling colorful floating hypnotic visuals immerse you within his mind. Linklater used a process called rotoscoping where he films the actors and then animates over their performance.
“What’s interesting about this process is that you do it just like you do a normal movie: you have a script, you cast it, you rehearse it, you shoot it — although we shot it on 24p cameras, we didn’t shoot on film — then you edit the movie just like a regular movie. And then you sort of redo the whole movie in animation. So we’ve spent a year and a half in this office animating. So we’ve spent a year and a half in this office animating. Probably 500 hours a minute of human time per minute — it’s a huge undertaking.”Richard Linklater, in an interview with Andrew Daze
This movie is designed to be a loopy ride, visually, and through plot and concepts. It’s the most faithful tribute to the story’s creator Philip K Dick. Most of Dick’s movie adaptions use names and elements of his creations, but end up being quite different than the source material. But A Scanner Darkly sticks close to the original. Much of the dialogue is taken directly from Dick’s book and it is poetic and powerful.
Keanu puts on a solid performance of a man who is steadily losing his mind but it is Robert Downey Jr. (shortly before his first Iron Man film) that is wonderful and entertaining as the devious James Barris. Rory Cochrane is also excellent as Charles Freck, a man who is fried far beyond anyone else in this movie. This is the sort of movie that will stick with you after you watch it. There’s a lot of interesting things going on, it’s both humorous and sad, inane and brilliant. But I want to be clear, this movie is not for everyone. It’s weird, it can be hard to follow, it has serious pacing issues, and can be a downer. I feel like a lot of people are going to think watching this movie is a big waste of time. This is not a popcorn movie. It’s 100% an experimental art film. If you don’t like that sort of stuff (and that ‘s fine if you don’t) then stay away from this movie.
There’s a very strong anti-drug message here. And even though this is science fiction, and substance D doesn’t exist, there is both veracity and honesty in how drugs can destroy you, even while being fun in the moment. What I took away from A Scanner Darkly is a style that looks different from any other movie that I’ve seen. I also enjoyed the performances of some of my favorite actors. But most of all what I enjoyed was, once again, those brilliant ideas of Philip K Dick that continue to be more relevant with each passing year. There’s an undercurrent of a police state, of a surveillance state, and an exploration of the loss of identity through technology, that could’ve been written today.
A Scanner Darkly is a film that stands out on many levels. It’s an art film, high concept science fiction, and a think-piece. It’s far from a perfect film. The tone alone will turn many people off. However, if you want to see something where the creators, the actors, and the crew stretched for something special, or you’re tired of cookie-cutter movies, or you want to have something to talk about afterward, then you should give this film a try.