The first thing that you’ll notice about A Scanner Darkly is the way that it was put together. This is a rotoscoped picture, meaning that every frame of live action filmed was drawn over by a team of animators. It’s not completely animation, but it mostly is. It gives the film a very unique look, and while it wouldn’t make a lot of sense to use it in a normal film, this isn’t a normal film. It’s about drug use and paranoia, and the delusions that the characters feel are represented more accurately in this rotoscoped setting.
On a more practical level, this type of film allows for potentially expensive scenes to be made just as cheaply as any others. For instance, the opening scene shows us one character, Charles (Rory Cochrane), covered in green bugs. They come out of his hair and other areas of his body, and even after he thinks he’s exterminated them, more appear. They even show up on his dog. Doing this with CGI would be much more expensive and look a whole lot worse. Done here, the bugs look as real as anything else in the film. A Scanner Darkly‘s budget was under $10 million, for the record.
The film follows the lives of five people, all of whom live in a society seemingly ruled by drugs. Their lives are, at least. The lead, assuming you are okay with calling him that, is a man named Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves), who is an undercover cop but also a drug addict, addicted to something called Substance D. The “D” presumably stands for “death.” He lives with his friends, James Barris (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Ernie (Woody Harrelson), is dating a drug dealer named Donna (Winona Ryder), and occasionally interacts with the aforementioned Charles.
All of these lives are on display here. Bob, working undercover by putting on a suit which allows him to hide his true identity, is tasked with intently watching his own house in very invasive methods. Barris is trying to get his own friends arrested for some reason. Ernie and Charles seem too doped up to even think properly. And Donna doesn’t like to be touched, citing that she’s done way too much cocaine.
I think A Scanner Darkly is a cautionary tale, but not just about drugs — though it most certainly is that. It also talks about paranoia and about invasive surveillance. There’s more to the film than initially meets the eyes, as is the case with most of Phillip K. Dick’s stories. This may be one of the most faithful adaptations of his stories, actually, and is as dark and strangely funny as the book. And it’s also really sad, just like real life drug abuse generally is.
There are a couple of fun reveals along the way, which is always an enjoyable thing to see. I don’t think the film did as much with the reveals as it probably could have, but what was done here is effective, if a bit predictable. There’s one that I’m thinking of that comes right at the end that I figured out fairly early on, although at the time I dismissed that as being too easy. Turns out, it wasn’t. If a character is seen only in a mask, it has to be because the film is trying to hide that character’s identity. The film isn’t quite as smart as it likes to think it is.
A Scanner Darkly does try to balance humor and sadness. The random outbursts by these drug addicts can be funny, particularly the antics of Harrelson’s character and Cochrane’s being afraid of his own shadow, but I was constantly wondering whether or not that’s something we should be laughing at. Should we find what has become a mental illness — a destroyed brain thanks to these drugs is basically the same thing — funny? No, I don’t think so. But I laughed anyway, despite the characters’ situations being tragic.
You grow to like most of these characters. They’re charming, endearing, and generally good people. It’s the drug that’s the enemy, not them. And when it affects them, which it often does, we pity them — even though we sometimes laugh at what they do. It’s tragic and unfortunate and the film is very effective at warning of the dangers of drugs — for the one or two people who don’t know that they’re dangerous and actually care that they are.
Is is a bad thing to say that it’s Keanu Reeves’ performance that carries the film? It does, although how much came from Reeves and how much was done by the animators is left up to your imagination. I don’t dislike Reeves as an actor, actually, although he has far from the greatest range in the world. He does a fine job here, as do each of the other actors. But, again, I’m not sure how much was them and how much was put in by the animation team. They’re the real stars of the visual experience that is A Scanner Darkly.
Here is a movie that is all about the visuals and the message, with individual story elements going by the wayside. They’re still there, but they’re far less prominent than they would be in most films. It doesn’t matter. The rotoscoping always gives you something interesting to look at, and the drug abuse, government surveillance, and all of the little details that make up the film will keep your mind from wandering. It’s not a film for everyone, but A Scanner Darkly gets a recommendation from me.