A Scanner Darkly

Come on in, it’s open.

You know what’s great about Phillip K. Dick? He loved to write paranoid mind fucks. Perhaps it wasn’t so much a matter as “loved” as “had to”, so that he could expose the Man.
Less great is Richard Linklater, who is largely responsible for what he puts on the screen. I don’t understand how it is that one year can see something as leaden as Fast Food Nation and something as dynamic and arresting as A Scanner Darkly. To get the most out of it, you have to like the sort of stories that Dick produced. My friends were bored, confused, or both. Fortunately Linklater used the rotoscoping technique that he employed for Wanking Life a few years back, so it managed to aesthetically intrigue and give them motion sickness at the same time.

“Fred” is an undercover policeman. His “real” identity is that of Robert Arctor (Keanu Reeves), who acts as a low-life drug addict so that he may uncover a larger drug dealing operation. As the film is set “seven years in the future”, undercover cops wear chameleon suits that constantly shift so that no one may recognise them. As such, “Fred” is charged with monitoring Arctor.
The idea of having to make feasible reports about himself without blowing either of his covers makes Arctor increasingly paranoid, and his desire not to be discovered leads to increased ingestion of the future drug “substance d” (scientifically proven to be nowhere near as cool as Catfish D).

I’m not entirely sure why, but I had trouble explaining that story out loud. On the screen, it doesn’t seem that high level. My favourite part of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (the book that came to be known as Blade Runner) was the instance in which Deckard is taken in by a branch of the police force and is hard pressed to figure out who in heck is supposed to be a replicant. Even I had no idea who was what in those scenes, and I wasn’t one of the active participants.
While I would have liked A Scanner Darkly to aspire to those lofty heights, it never quite reaches them. Rather than soaring, A Scanner Darkly meanders – sometimes even lurches – from act to act, providing a fair amount of amusement and wonder along the way. Linklater’s “scanner” – the camera that has painted the world in constantly shifting digital colour – is unfortunately not as dark as would have made this film effective. His direction is objective and does not leave many questions unanswered. Arctus hallucinates several times, but the audience always feels in control. The scanner is bright enough for us to be able to separate fiction from reality; Linklater is not on the level of Dick for unreliable narration.

What we end up with is a more than adequate film with respectively intriguing and hilarious acting from Robert Downey Jr. and Woody Harrelson, who I totally did not expect to see in such a role. Winona Rider also puts on a good turn as Donna, the film’s emotional focus; while Arctor can’t figure out if he respects her or is too out of it to care, she’s still there and she does her job well. The true highlight of the film is Rory Cochrane’s George Freck, who gets the single funniest and, consequently, most out of place scene in the film.

The draw of the film for many people lies in its rotoscope technique. I’m not entirely certain if it would have worked without it, even though the effect is only used for a few things that are out of the ordinary. Sometimes colours on faces shift with no good reason, and the chameleon suits are almost guaranteed to put you off the first time you see them, but it’s an interesting way to present a film. Unfortunately it sometimes lends itself to Linklater’s passion for pseudo-psychological discussion, but we can’t win them all.
I would have bought Robert Downey Jr. in his role regardless of rotoscopy, but Cochrane, Harrelson and Rider sell themselves in the animated form.
Like the chameleon suit that he inhabits, Keanu Reeves seems strangely soulless in this form. It’s not that I believe that he is a bad actor – certainly, he’s never bothered me – but he’s supposed to be out of it, and out of it he is. In retrospect, this makes the film’s idea of identity work all the better because “Fred”/Arctor appears to have abandoned all sense of self for the sake of his job.

Shouldn’t everyone notice that the nark is always the cynical one in the group? The one who asks for every plot to be explained because the stupidity contained within said plot is unfathomable? The one who seems to be a non-entity, who seems to know very little of drugs?
Well no, not always. However, I imagine it would be harder to be an undercover drug addict than it would be to be an undercover thug. Of course, now we’re just splitting hairs and comparing this movie to The Departed would be grasping at straws. At any rate, I liked A Scanner Darkly. It ended at precisely the right place: a place significantly right enough to excuse past lurches into other gears with its air of ambiguous hope.

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