Director: Richard Linklater
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey, Jr., Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder, Rory Cochrane
Introduction Plot Summary Impressions Wrap-up
My rating: Class B (2/7, a very hot blue-white star). Strangely engrossing and hypnotic, A Scanner Darkly is richly evocative of ’70s drug culture, steeped in paranoia, and sufficiently bumpy in terms of plot twists to offer a fun ride even if you know what’s going on. Darkly funny and sad, this is one to watch.
Philip K. Dick is one of the giants of science fiction, publishing in, and in the wake of, the New Wave from 1955 to his death in 1982, with a surprising ten posthumous novels as well. Dick’s works, while not widely known outside the science fiction world in his lifetime, have subsequently become much more famous, with twelve films* adapted from various short stories and novels since his death, including Blade Runner, the number one film on our list.
Given Dick’s pedigree, A Scanner Darkly seemed like a movie worth taking a look at, and it draws heavily upon Dick’s personal experiences with the drug culture—in fact, Dick once stated that it was the first novel he had written while not on speed. Other favorite Dick themes abound: the fragility of reality, the nature of personal identity, and everyday working people as opposed to the cultural or political elite.
The film also makes extensive use of rotoscoping—actually, the entire film is rotoscoped. That means that the movie was filmed and then animators painstakingly traced over each individual frame of the film. The term comes from the original projection equipment, which put the film images on a piece of frosted glass which the animators used to do their work. It gives the film a unique look and feel which suits its themes and caused some critics to compare the drug culture to “the dark world of comic books.”
The film was initially released in seventeen theaters, with a slightly larger release following. Shot for a budget of about $8.7 million, it made only $7.7 million world-wide, and critical response to it was mixed. Critics such as The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Village Voice, and others commented on its hypnotic appeal and singled out Robert Downey Jr.’s performance as one of the best supporting actor performances of the year. However, media such as Entertainment Weekly, The Guardian and The New York Daily News pegged it as murky and overly talk-oriented, with a plot that goes nowhere. The division seems clear: the arty folks like the movie, while the more down-to-earth crowd doesn’t. The movie has a 68% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes and 73% from Metacritic.
Plot (Contains Spoilers)
Setup: America has lost the war on drugs, though the country is fighting a valiant rear-guard action against Substance D, a strongly addictive drug which causes hallucinations. Its side effects, over time, cause the user to experience cognitive defects and permanent, presumably physical, brain damage. Bob Arctor, an undercover policeman, works in the equivalent of a narcotics division and is assigned to break into a Substance D distribution ring. His girlfriend, Donna, is a cocaine addict who sells him Substance D, and his two roommates, James Barris and Ernie Luckman, as well as his friend Charles Freck, are fellow drug users. Arctor, who wears a scramble suit at work which conceals his identity and uses the codename Fred, is assigned to spy on his own household by his boss, Hank—who also wears a scramble suit. And so the stage is set!
Skip the summary and jump to impressions!
Short summary: Boy is a member of the police force’s drug division. He wears a scramble suit while at work, and his coworkers do not know who he is. Boy is assigned to penetrate a distribution ring for “Substance D,” a dangerous drug with some nasty side effects. Boy is subsequently given orders to spy on his own household (he has two roommates, an associate of the group and a girlfriend) in an attempt to break the Substance D ring. Drug-fueled hijinks ensue as Boy becomes addicted to, and then brain-damaged by, Substance D. Boy’s roommate reports Boy and Boy’s Girlfriend as terrorists. Boy’s roommate is arrested for furnishing false information to the police. Boy gets put into New Path, a rehabilitation facility. Boy is badly brain-damaged and subsequently brainwashed. Boy’s girlfriend turns out to be his police supervisor. Boy goes to work at New Path’s farm. Boy discovers New Path is the source of Substance D. Boy resolves to take one of the plants to his friends at Thanksgiving. The day is saved!
The interpolated rotoscope technique—which amounts to computerized animation of previously filmed live-action video—dominates the film’s visual look. This particular technique relies on vector keyframes to create the “in-between” frames automatically, but human artists had to do the basic work, and it took fifteen months and $2 million more than expected. The reason for the rotoscoping? Linklater, the director, wanted to do animation for adults, or so he has said. I can only surmise, however, that the scramble suits were at the base of the decision to animate, as any special effects for the suits would probably be quite difficult to pull off successfully.
At any rate, the animation is darkly realistic, and as a viewer I never lost sight of the fact that there was a real live-action film at the core of A Scanner Darkly. The animation creates a hypnotic effect which mirrors the hallucinatory quality of the drug Substance D, and it also creates a slight air of unreality, of something a little off, which pervades the film thematically and therefore gives the movie’s look a unique tie to its meanings.
The music is also unique, starting with acoustic instruments and adding electric guitar and bass, then transforming them into something which sounds as if it might have been synthesized. Graham Reynolds, a Texas composer, put together the basic score which includes about 44 minutes of music. While not especially memorable, the music does a nice job and it fits the look and feel of the film. The soundtrack also features songs by Radiohead.
The acting is pretty darn good. Keanu Reeves, as Bob Arctor, delivers precisely the sort of confused, almost bumbling, performance which the role calls for. Reeves seldom delivers awesome performances, but he may be underrated as an actor. Here he gives exactly what the film needs, as does Woody Harrelson in his role as the laid-back, likeable Ernie Luckman, and Rory Cochrane as the hapless Charles Freck (an associate, but not a roommate, who is apparently much further down the road to disaster in his Substance D addiction). All three performers do a nice job with roles which don’t call for them to stretch too far.
The true standouts are Robert Downey, Jr. and Wynona Rider. The former plays the arrogant and self-centered James Barris, a man who is paranoid, selfish, and traitorous, but not without a certain wry charm. Downey’s performance is inspired, frenetic, and convincing. The latter plays Arctor’s girlfriend, cocaine addict, and Substance D dealer Donna Hawthorne. While Rider doesn’t give a tour de force, she must convey substantial emotion as it is revealed that she is code name Hank, Arctor’s boss in the police force, real name Audrey, who knowingly sacrifices Arctor without his knowledge or consent so that the police can bust New Path. Without Audrey’s confession to her fellow policeman Mike, the film would make less sense, and the decision to sacrifice Bob Arctor would be a much colder, crueler event—instead of the tragedy which it seems to be in the film.
The film addresses the issue of excessive drug use and the sense of unreality which participants in the drug culture sometimes experience. Put simply, many drug users simply do not live in the same world as the rest of us, and the movie offers a glimpse into their world. Here the rotoscoping makes sense, giving, as it does, an air of unreality to what is in fact real. The various characters’ hallucinations merge seamlessly into reality due in part to the animation technique. And as Arctor begins to suffer brain damage from his use of Substance D, one of Dick’s other themes, that of the loss of personal identity, surfaces.
It is significant that Arctor’s brain damage and loss of identity first manifest as memories of a life that never was, when he was married and had children and lived in a clean and well-kept version of the same house. Arctor’s life that never was is what he could have had without the drugs.
In some ways the aimlessness of the characters seems harmless. They are, to a man, self-destructive idiots who lack ambition and drive, and do not seem interested in making connections with the rest of the world. For all that they are, to a conventional mindset, a waste of space and human potential, they are only dangerous to themselves and each other. The only arrest which takes place, that of James Barris, is due to his faking a tape and turning in Arctor and Hawthorne as members of a terrorist group. The true villains of the piece, the dealers and manufacturers who profit from the waste of human potential, go unpunished—though there is a hint that retribution is coming.
As a prediction of the future, A Scanner Darkly failed. America has not yet lost the war on drugs to such an extent that 20% of the nation could be classed as addicts, and we do not yet tolerate the loss of freedoms which the film seems to take for granted. On the other hand, we also don’t have anything quite like Substance D available to us, either. And the police spying which takes place, since it takes place in Arctor’s house with his consent, is at least partially defensible (though arguably still in violation of the 4th Amendment).
The film ends with a version of the novel’s Afterword, in which Dick listed a number of people he knew who had suffered permanant injury as a result of sustained drug use. Dick’s own name, Phil, appears with the notation “pancreatic damage.”
The title of the novel and the film echoes a biblical passage, I Corinthians 13, which may be one of the most famous (and beautiful) passages in the Bible. The relevant portion is
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I thought as a child. But when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then, face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know even as I am also known. And now abideth faith, hope and love, these three, but the greatest of these is love.
The King James Bible uses the word “charity” while most translations use the word “love.” In the original Greek, the word is agape, a word difficult to translate but dealing with love for all mankind. While the chapter is often used as the core of a wedding ceremony, the chapter has always seemed to me to deal with the transforming power of love for one’s fellow man, and of the necessity for mankind to treat one another well. Dick’s reference of this particular biblical passage may indicate that he wants us to deal with the nation’s drug problem with charity and thoughtfulness, or it may simply be a powerful phrase (so powerful that it brought the relevant passage back to my attention, and which then surfaced in my own review title of Buck Rogers) which indicates that the beholder cannot see everything clearly in all cases.
A Scanner Darkly is not for everyone, and I suspect that a number of viewers will be disgusted or turned off by the antics of the drugged out roommates. Others will find it funny without being particularly moved by it. Still others will find the rotoscoping too much, too distracting.
If you’re one of those who enjoys a tightly-themed, loosely plotted psychodrama, however, I strongly recommend this film. It’s sad, it’s moving, it’s funny, and it features two very strong performances which make it well worth the price of admission.
* The twelve films, and their original printed versions, are:
- Blade Runner, a Ridley Scott film which is ranked #1 on the Top 50 Films List, based on the 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Starring Harrison Ford, the film was very different from the novel but Dick actually saw this one (he died four months after it was released) and liked what Scott had done with the film;
- Total Recall, a 1990 Paul Verhoeven film starring Arnold Schwarzenager, based on the 1966 short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale,” reviewed in this blog as a detour;
- Confessions d’un Barjo, 1992, French film, based on the non-fiction Confessions of a Crap Artist. The novel, written in 1959, was published in 1975;
- Screamers, 1995, directed by Christian Duguay, starring Peter Weller, and based on the chilling short story “Second Variety,” which was originally published in 1953;
- Minority Report, 2002, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Cruise, based on the 1956 short story “The Minority Report;”
- Imposter, 2002, directed by Gary Fleder and starring Gary Sinese, Madeleine Stowe and Vincent D’Onofrio, based on the 1953 story “Imposter;”
- Paycheck, 2003, directed by John Woo and starring Ben Affleck, based on the 1953 short story “Paycheck;”
- A Scanner Darkly, which probably needs no further information since that’s what this entry is about;
- Next, 2007, directed by Lee Tamahori and starring Nicolas Cage, based on the 1954 novelette “The Golden Man,” which is now in the public domain;
- Radio Free Albemuth, 2010, directed by John Alan Simon and starring Alanis Morissette, based on the 1985 novel Radio Free Albemuth, and which, though screened at various theatrical festivals, has yet to enjoy US theatrical release;
- The Adjustment Bureau, 2011, directed by George Nolfi, starring Matt Damon, based on the 1954 short story “Adjustment Team;” and
- Total Recall, 2012, directed by Len Wiseman and starring Colin Farrell, as a second remake of the short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.”
Two more of his works are in production in some stage, the short story “King of the Elves” as a Walt Disney animated feature and the novel Ubik, currently in negotiation as a film adaptation. Rumors persist of adaptations of The Man in the High Castle into a miniseries by Ridley Scott and a film adaptation of the novel Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said.
Each of the short stories referenced above can be found in the collection Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick.