A Scanner Darkly – Richard Linklater and the separation of left and right brain. (film review)

A Scanner Darkly is easily one of Linklaters best films, and one of the best science fiction films I’ve ever seen. I haven’t read any Phillip K Dick novels or short stories, but according to my reading around, A Scanner Darkly was what he considered to be his best and the work his had been building toward all his life. Anyone even slightly familiar with his work won’t be surprised to hear this means the film is heavy on the philosophy and mind bending twists and light on action and thrills. Problematically this makes it an almost impossible sci-fi film to make these days – unless you’re Richard Linklater and you come up with the brilliant idea of using interpolated rotoscope to give the film its sci-fi edge.

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Of all the films made of Dick’s stories, A Scanner Darkly is the one supposedly that remains the closest to its source material. Dick has given us a terrifying dystopian world where ‘Substance D’, the ultimate drug, has more than twenty percent of the country addicted. The United States are losing the war against drugs, and we will of course, find out why that is in the films chilling close. Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) is an uncover cop working to eliminate the drug infestation known as Substance D, a nasty little number that creates hallucinations by separating left and right brain functioning, ultimately ending in brain damage. The only known way to detox against this drug is provided by – you guessed it – a major corporation known as New Path, a body who appear to be doing all they can to quell the rampant spread of the drug. The problem for Arctor is he is also an addict, and lives with his two addicted friends, James Barris (Robert Downey Junior) and the regularly confused Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson) and dates his dealer, Donna (Winona Ryder) with whom he has a frustrating ultimately sexless but passionate relationship. The identity of all those who work at New Path undercover is so secret, they wear suits called ‘Scramble Suits’ that keep their identity secret by mixing up voices, image and other identity codes by which we recognize each other. This means Arctor is able to keep his identity secret from his peers.

That is, of course, until he is commissioned to examine Bob Arctor, drug addict.

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Interpolated Rotoscope is the process of painting over film. Linklater has made the film with the actors and then to add to the unsettling complexity of the human, their image and their place in the world, the film has been painted over by artists. This gives the feel of the most concise animation you will ever see along with contributing to the unease the film (and the story) intend. In many ways it is difficult to watch. The narrative is deliberately circular also, often times given the feeling of the effects of Substance D.  We are privy to the ramblings of the drug addicted and particularly in the case of Robert Downey Juniors hyper machine gun delivery of the text often feel like we are taking the drug ourselves. Some of the films most important lines are delivered in this way by James Barris, and they are difficult to catch. The heated pelt of the words combined with the disconcerting way everyone looks has you straining for a stability while knowing you can do nothing but wait out to the end of the ride.  Harrelsons character, perpetually reaching for some sort of reality upon which to hang his logic, is particularly amusing next to Downy Juniors paranoid verbal aggressor. An Interesting twist, and we know Linklater is excellent with cast, is our three dope heads are all real life lapsed movie stars with their own relationships to drug related crime under their belt. Its only Reeves, who of course is anti-Neo in this film, who doesn’t have the drug related public past.

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Linklater keeps A Scanner Darkly as close to Dick’s original as possible, but his use of the style of characters as well as the cartoon-ish effects incorporates contemporary themes, such as a blend of sixties culture with post eighties realism, and the war on terror melding in with the war on drugs. The important points of Dick’s novel remain, such as total surveillance of public and private space. At the heart is the drug related paranoia Dick experienced so vividly that he successfully translates to a non drug related world. Drug users and teetotalers alike can feel the skin crawling depths of the creepy world Dick creates.  Linklater, who makes so many films that need to be made that no one has thought of, takes the spirit of Phillip K Dick, honor and embodies it, while keeping his own soul in tact. As this great review in Empire magazine reminds us, this is a film worth seeing for its intelligence alone.

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