A Scanner Darkly

on July 07, 2006 by Annlee Ellingson
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Set "seven years from now" in a very different O.C. from the one portrayed on television, "A Scanner Darkly" stars Keanu Reeves as Fred, an undercover cop who's been assigned to spy on his druggie friends: Jim Barris (Robert Downey Jr.), a duplicitous troublemaker of frightening genius; Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrleson), a junkie of endearing innocence; and Donna Hawthorn (Winona Ryder), a hottie dealer of a powerful narcotic dubbed Substance D, who is repulsed by physical, let alone sexual, contact. At the center of the investigation is Bob Arctor (also Reeves), owner of the house where they all congregate, and the alter-ego of Fred, which means that Fred is essentially spying on himself.

Based on Philip K. Dick's 1977 novel that was informed by the author's own drug experiences, the film, which retains the dark humor often missing from other Dick adaptations such as "Blade Runner," "Minority Report" and "Paycheck," is at once dated and eerily prescient. Today the war on drugs has been supplanted in the public consciousness by the war on terror, but the paranoia remains the same, as reports on wiretapping and monitored phone records dominate today's headlines. In the movie, too, citizens are under constant surveillance on the streets and in their homes. And, as Arctor/Fred buckles under the pressure of always being watched, in effect always playing a role, he wonders, "What does a scanner see? Into the head? Into the heart? Does it see into me? Clearly? Or darkly?" Is this paranoia, too, what the future holds for us?

But so far this discussion has left out a crucial element to the effect of the talky, philosophical film, which is that it's animated. Well, sort of. It was live-action first, then that footage was transformed into animation, much like director/writer Richard Linklater's "Waking Life" before it. That 2001 film, which grossed $2.9 million in theatres, was set entirely in a dream world as the main character wandered through his own subconscious, picking up tidbits of existentialist thought while trying, futilely, to wake up.

Since then another animation technique has emerged that accomplishes much the same thing to vastly different effect: Robert Zemeckis used motion-capture on "The Polar Express" to digitally record Tom Hanks' performance through reflective dots in a Lycra suit worn by the star during production on a soundstage. Infrared cameras tracked the movement of the dots and then logged the information in 3D, which was then later rendered into the illustration-esque animation style.

Here, Linklater filmed and cut the movie in live-action first, then handed it over to animators who traced over the footage using a rotoscoping software. The technique isn't so much cutting-edge as it is retro -- Disney artists pioneered rotoscoping in the 1930s to achieve more realistic motion for their cartoon characters -- although nowadays it's all done digitally. The effect is more pop-art painterly than children's-book CG. Notably, one element at which rotoscoping particularly succeeds is capturing the movement and expression of characters' eyes, whereas a common complaint of "Polar Express" was that the eyes were vacant and, well, "creepy."

As with "Waking Life," "A Scanner Darkly" is uniquely suited for this highly stylized animation. The technique effectively captures both the hallucinations of a junkie plagued by imagined aphids swarming all over his body and the futuristic technology of the scramble suit, which projects a cycle of 1.5 million fractional representations of men, women and children, creating a blur that renders an undercover cop unidentifiable. Moreover, the animation is at once startlingly realistic and surreal, conveying the story's heightened atmosphere of paranoia.

This cartoon layer over the actors live-action performances also speaks to one of the central themes of the movie -- that of assuming a new identity, going undercover, sometimes by cloaking oneself in a scramble suit, sometimes disguised by one's own skin. It's an experience so confusing that, when accompanied by prolonged use of Substance D, the right and left hemispheres of the brain disconnect, quite literally splitting the protagonist's personality. At one point Arctor slips and says, "How could a guy do that? Pose as a narc?"--begging the question whether he's a cop posing as a drug addict or a drug addict posing as a cop, and whether he himself even knows the difference anymore.

Rotoscoping technology has evolved since "Waking Life." The images are smoother, richer, more sophisticated and more detailed for deeper emotional impact. And, whereas on the previous film animators were encouraged to render each scene in his or her artistic vision, here, because there is an overarching storyline, even if it doesn't always seem so, "A Scanner Darkly" maintains throughout an overall look inspired by the style of graphic novels.

The production was reportedly a troubled one: The budget swelled by $2 million to $8.7 million; the original release date of September 2005 was ultimately extended by 10 months; and the animation was seized from MIT grad Bob Sabiston, who pioneered the rotoscoping software, and his crew of 30 animators, who possessed little previous moviemaking experience, when it became clear that Linklater's unified vision was not coming to fruition. All of which led Linklater to tell Wired earlier this year, "I wouldn't want to do another animated movie."

That's too bad. In an industry that increasingly leans toward slick CGI 'toons by Pixar, DreamWorks and Blue Sky, which largely keep adults entertained while playing it safe enough for kids, both "A Scanner Darkly" and "Waking Life" demonstrate the potential for animation aimed squarely at mature, intelligent audiences. Starring Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder and Rory Cochrane. Directed and written by Richard Linklater. Produced by Anne Walker-McBay, Tommy Pallotta, Palmer West, Jonah Smith and Erwin Stoff. A Warner Independent release. Animated drama. Rated R for sexual content, language and a brief violent image. Running time: 102 min

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