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Movies: A Scanner Darkly

I don't get out to the cinema often these days. But there are certain classes of film that I will always make an effort to see in the theater, among them:

  • Movies based on the work of Phillip K. Dick
  • Animated movies aimed at an adult audience
  • Movies written and directed by Richard Linklater
As A Scanner Darkly falls into all three categories, I was pretty much obligated to see it.

On the debits side of the ledger, we have this: the film stars Keanu Reeves. I don't really mind Reeves, but as the Matrix trilogy has a very heavy Phillip K. Dick influence, I was a little worried that this would just become the fourth in the series. Fortunately, Reeves spends much of the film looking and acting befuddled (the one type of dramatic role he invariably excels at), a far cry from the demigod of Neo. And the performances of his colleagues -- Woody Harlson, Mitch Baker, and Robert Downey Jr. in particular -- more than compensate for Reeves' limited range.

The film is set in a near future where a drug called Substance-D is destroying America. Reeves' character Bob Arctor, for instance, is hooked on the stuff, and it's slowly eroding his ability to tell reality from fantasy. He spends half of his time lollygagging around his pad with other addicts, and the other half working for law enforcement, where he has been assigned to spy on ... himself. One of the perks of working as a uncover narc in the future, it seems, is that you get to wear a "scramble suit," which conceals your identity from everyone -- even your superiors, who may inadvertently charge you with monitoring your drug-addled alter ego.

Scanner uses a technique called "rotoscoping, in which live-action footage is traced over and converted to animation. It is particularly well-suited to this tale, as it falls in animation's uncanny valley: it looks artificial enough to be perceived as animation, but realistic enough to put the audience on edge. In short, it makes the viewer feel like he, like the protagonists, has recently ingested a sizable quantity of illicit substances. It's hard to even criticize the technique, as even its deficiencies work in the context of Scanner. One thing that bothered me was how components of large objects would sometimes appear to move independent of the thing they were attached to -- the headlights of cars, for instance. And yet, these irksome details just served to heighten my feeling of hazyheadedness, the exact effect I assume Linklater was shooting for when he choose rotoscoping in the first place.

Unlike most films inspired by the work of Dick, A Scanner Darkly is based on a full length novel and is a faithful adaptation of the source material. Or so I'm told. I read A Scanner Darkly a number of years ago, but couldn't really remember anything about it. Seeing the film didn't so much remind me of how the novel went as remind me why I found it so difficult to recall.

Both the book and the film fall under the rubric of "complete mindfuck." That is, most of the time you're not sure what's going on, and, even when you do, you're not sure whether the events are real. As a result, you tend to sequester everything you see into a a little mental cubbyhole marked "Conditional," ready to purge it if a subsequent revelation reveals this particular scene to be false, or take it out and stamp it "authentic" if it is later verified as real. Unfortunately, you never really get any confirmation one way or the other in Scanner, so you walk out of the film with a head full of loose puzzle pieces instead of a complete picture. And we all know what happens to loose pieces over time: you lose them, one by one. I saw the film last week and already can only remember half of it.

I met up with some friends after seeing the film, and they asked me what I thought. "I don't know," I told them, "I need to think it over for a day." That was last Saturday, and I still haven't made up my mind. I liked it, I guess, but film and the animation style were so self-referential that I kind of felt like they all added up to nothing, like a snake that swallows its own tail and vanishes from sight. Admittedly, that analogy doesn't make a whole lot of sense. But, then again, the same may be true of the film. I have no idea.

Posted on August 11, 2006 to Movies


Heh, great review. I had the privilege of seeing it in Auckland's Civic Theatre as part of the film festival (my reviews here), and loved it because how often do you get to put your mind through something that awesome? I might have to check out more of Phillip K. Dick's / Richard Linklater's stuff.

Posted by: db on August 13, 2006 1:40 AM

Your review has certainly piqued my curiosity. I'm not a huge fan of Reeves, but the rotoscoping sounds cool enough to watch it.

I'll give it a bash.

Posted by: premiump on August 13, 2006 6:44 AM

Your description makes it sound like the perfect Philip K. Dick movie, actually. Nobody ever knows what's real and what isn't in PKD's work.

Posted by: Doctor Jay on August 13, 2006 7:52 AM

i enjoyed it. it was a complete mind fuck. i heard the book was unreadable and after watching the movie, i can believe that. your description was great.

Posted by: leahpeah on August 13, 2006 1:55 PM

Like acid, only cheaper and with more of a plot.

Posted by: Lethargic on August 13, 2006 9:01 PM

Dangit Matt, now I'm going to have to plunk down the $30 it will take to see a movie on the "big screen"

Also enjoyed Waking Life, using (I think) the same animation technique.


Posted by: Jonathan Scupin on August 14, 2006 8:04 AM

Alright, you talked me into spending $9 for a ticket, but only if we can get a free sitter, and my wife's still going to have to buy her own ticket. God damn, I'm feeling cheap today, but I'm still not buying any popcorn no mater how much of a mind-fuck the movie is.

Posted by: freezio on August 14, 2006 8:49 AM

I saw it... I also have gone from seeing lots of movies to seeing them only occasionally, for the same reason (baby.) I remembered the book fairly well, but completely misremembered the ending. What I thought was a change was actually faithful to the book.

I really enjoyed the paranoia. Or do I just want you to think that?

Other than that, as an animation-tolerant person, I thought the rotoscoping was annoying. The floatiness of the highlights in people's hair, for example, was pretty endlessly distracting. Just because something can move doesn't mean it has to.

Also: the next day I watched Kiss Kiss Bang Bang on DVD. It gave more proof that Robert Downey Jr. is at absolute minimum, totally watchable... even when rotoscoped.

Posted by: Jeremy Hornik on August 14, 2006 10:22 AM

I am so impressed by your vivid review, Matt. I look forward to seeing this movie soon. I like the kind of films that keep you thinking about it for days, even if just to say "huh?"

Posted by: Bonnie Rames on August 15, 2006 1:00 AM

I liked the movie, and share a lot of your feelings about it. I wasn't really sure how i felt about it after seeing it. Even now, i feel like i'm still waiting for another shoe to drop. (Perhaps there are more than two? Who said it's not an alien who wears 5 shoes on 3 legs, 1 arm and a snout?)

I'm a Linklater fan. A small part of that is hometown (Austin) "loyalty." More of it is that Linklater and i grew up here around the same time, and i think places mold a person, especially when they're in their late teens and twenties. (I've never met the guy, but we were at UT Austin about the same time, and a lot of the places he's put in his films are cool places i like (or liked.. many are gone) to hang out at. Austin had a very active art house cinema scene back in the 1980s. There was a commercial art house theater, and several places at UT Austin that showed unusual (as well as conventional) films. It was a good place then to see a lot of really good films.

I *love* Waking Life. I think the technique they used in Waking Life and Scanner Darkly was originally developer by Bob Sebiston for Waking Life. There's a good interview with him on the WL DVD about the software he wrote for the movie.

I also like quite a bit Slacker and Dazed and Confused (also by Linklater). Slacker is most similar to Waking Life, but Dazed and Confused is more mainstream, though far above average for that type of film.

I've never read Scanner Darkly. I want to read it now. I didn't find the animation distracting, but that's probably because i've watched Waking Life about 7-10 times, and the animation is quite a bit more active there.

I don't really find either of them "trippy". Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was a lot more mentally discombobulating in that regard.

I think that one reason i feel somewhat distanced from the film is the rotoscope-type animation. It adds a new layer to the film. We don't actually get to see what the actor did, except through the layers the animators have added. And so the animators get to highlight certain visual things and leave out others. It's interesting, but definitely makes the whole thing seem a bit more abstract. I don't think i was pulled into the movie by emotion as i would be with most films.

Linklater is very good at provoking interestingly different thoughts or perspectives.

Posted by: johan on August 15, 2006 3:05 AM

Can someone explain the title, please? I've been curious about it ever since the first preview. With darkly being an adverb, I don't see how it fits into "A Scanner" and that is enough to mess with my head; I don't even have to see the film!

Posted by: Ian Clifton on August 15, 2006 9:01 AM

At one point in the novel, Bob Arctor contemplates one of the many cameras that the feds use to monitor the population:

What does a scanner see? he asked himself. I mean, really see? Into the head? Down into the heart? Does a passive infrared scanner like they used to use or a cube-type holo-scanner like they use these days, the latest thing, see into me - into us - clearly or darkly? I hope it does, he thought, see clearly, because I can't any longer these days see into myself. I see only murk. Murk outside; murk inside. I hope, for everyone's sake, the scanners do better. Because, he thought, if the scanner sees only darkly, the way I myself do, then we are cursed, cursed again and like we have been continually, and we'll wind up dead this way, knowing very little and getting that little fragment wrong too.

Posted by: Matthew on August 15, 2006 9:08 AM

The title is also, I assume, a play on "a mirror, darkly" in 1 Corinthians 13:12: "For now we see in a mirror, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know fully even as also I was fully known."

I also just discovered that "In a Mirror, Darkly" was the name of a Star Trek Enterprise episode.

Posted by: juliloquy on August 15, 2006 10:35 AM

I absolutely adore perplexing puzzles of nonsensical notions but come to films and I like to exit clutching a film of “ah” however fragile and not be completely crippled by utter mystification the subsequent week, eclipsed by overwhelming sensation I swallowed a hallucinogen for the entire cinematic course. From your descriptions, I'll do myself a favor and rather invest that crisp $10 in medication, not an excuse to become medicated.

Posted by: Sapphire on August 15, 2006 11:04 AM

Thanks for the title explanation/origin Matthew!

Posted by: Ian Clifton on August 16, 2006 8:14 AM

I, for one, do not see how the movie left anyone going "huh?". It wraps up rather nicely with a standard betrayal of trust wherin the hero (arktor) is betrayed by his love/herroine (donna)
in that, unwittingly, arktor is being used to unravel a scheme of distribution by the government that oppresses. The flowers are found in the field that arktor is sent to by the rehabilitation center.
certainly cruel, but nonetheless, connectable.

Posted by: Jack on August 18, 2006 1:40 AM

The only good movie Linklater ever made is Slacker. Everything else is crap.

Posted by: fdsafds on August 23, 2006 4:01 PM

I too didn't know what to think after coming out of that movie. I still haven't decided whether I liked it or not.

The thing I remember the most though is the very long list of dead and permanently brain-damaged friends/family of Mr. Dick that was shown as the dedication at the end. Truly depressing, but also made me wonder why he hung out with so many serious drug users? I mean, having a joint now and then is one thing but he had more than a dozen end up dead or permanently institutionalized...

I think that made me think more than the story itself did.

Posted by: Anye on August 28, 2006 2:13 PM