By Corey Birkhofer
A Scanner Darkly, USA, 2006
Written and Directed by Richard Linklater
Based on the Novel A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick
Richard Linklater has always been a filmmaker who has impressed me. Since Slacker (1991) set the stage for his later work, he has gone from one unique film to the next, helping to put Austin, Texas, on the filmmaking map as well as carving out an eclectic career for himself.
About 10 years ago, when I was just starting out in university, a little film with incredibly impacting visuals suddenly came out of nowhere. This was none other than Waking Life (2001), a film that set highly intellectual and downright ridiculous conversations as the stage for a main character who went to sleep and couldn’t wake up. Simple, but brilliant. For my (at the time) 19-year-old, pretentious mind, this film was a smorgasbord of content for late-night coffee shop discussions about the existentialism of life, what dreams really are, and so much more.
Visually speaking, the film took an incredibly new approach to animation, layered over the top of live-action actors, called “rotoscoping.” So here Linklater was, making a relatively inexpensive feature animation using one-chip mini-DV cameras and then rotoscoping rich color palettes and layer upon layer of animation, one frame at a time. Revolutionary. And the result provided for an eerie, almost too-real form of storytelling because the animation was painted on top of real human subjects.
I think it’s safe to say I wasn’t the only one so deeply influenced by Linklater’s venture into animation, nor would I say that all those who loved Waking Life weren’t just as excited as me to see Linklater’s second stab at the rotoscope style of animation in his new film, A Scanner Darkly.
Now if anyone knows anything about Richard Linklater, they know he is quite possibly one of the biggest Philip K. Dick fans in the world. So when he gets the chance to take a Dick story with top billing actors like Keanu Reeves and Robert Downey, Jr. in the front seat, one might actually stretch to believe the film had some real potential. Being in Japan like I am, it’s hard enough to get your hands on any non-Hollywood film at the rental store, but somehow I was able to rent a copy of this one, and here’s what I thought:
Take films like The Matrix (1999), for example, that have this “Big Brother is Always Watching” undertone, and now you’ve got an idea of the stage set for Scanner. Basically a governmental organization has the ability to monitor everything we do, and anytime you step out of line, the authorities come knocking on your door. The reason Big Brother is able to know everything at all times is because the entire world is constantly being scanned.
The only individuals who can escape this scan are ones like Keanu Reeves’s character, Bob Arctor, who work for the Big Brother agency and wear these hologram-like body suits that are constantly projecting the likenesses of thousands of individuals at any given time, making it impossible for the scanners to know who you are and, as such, allow the individual wearing the suit to do undercover detective work for the agency. In Bob’s case, this involves going undercover to break up a drug-dealing ring that has been causing the agency problems for years. The problem is Bob is a druggie himself, the product of a once-happy nine-to-fiver life who threw away his happy little existence. Now all he has in his life are drugs and a motley crew of loser friends and some weird girl he likes who won’t sleep with him to keep him company as he half-assedly tries to do his job. And that’s pretty much the plot right there.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with an adaptation of a novel, but when you go to such lengths to rotoscope animate over the top of real actors, it better have a good edge to it to keep it fresh. In the case of Scanner, it’s just so pretentious and directionless that all the animation does is become a background of pretty colors to look at. Maybe Linklater made it for pretentious couch philosophers to get high and watch, but he definitely didn’t make it for anyone looking for a film with any substance or direction, other than just a collection of some kind-of-cool ideas from a Philip K. Dick novel he’d always wanted to make into a film.
I think Waking Life was so new and cool and edgy that it gave Linklater the clout to get the budget for A Scanner Darkly, but unless you want to waste a couple hours watching this film when you’d probably be better off just reading Dick’s book, I’d highly recommend avoiding this disappointing venture.
Contact the Author: CoreyBirkhofer@MoviesIDidntGet.com