'A Scanner Darkly': Keanu Reeves, Undercover and Flying High on a Paranoid Head Trip
by Manohla Dargis
Identities shift and melt like shadows in Richard Linklater's animated adaptation of "A Scanner Darkly," a look at a future that looks an awful lot like today. Based on a 1977 novel by the science fiction visionary Philip K. Dick, the semispeculative story involves a cop (call him Officer Fred) who, by assuming an undercover identity (call him Bob Arctor), is inching his way up toward a big drug bust, score by score. But there's a little problem: Fred is starting to forget he's Bob, or maybe vice versa.
Given that Fred/Bob has been regularly dropping Substance D, as in Death, tab by tab, it's no wonder he's feeling a bit off; no wonder, too, given that this is the world Philip K. Dick made. Like the writer's other worlds, that of "A Scanner Darkly" is one in which drugs predominate and reality tends to be a big question mark, hovering like an electro-colored thought bubble above characters who are more everyday normal than super-this or -that. Ordinary guys who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances like Fred/Bob, who in Mr. Linklater's film has been given seductive voice and corporeal outline by Keanu Reeves, an actor whose penchant for otherworldly types and excellent adventures make him well suited for vision quests like this one.
Mr. Dick wrote "A Scanner Darkly" after several years of firsthand experience with what he called the street scene in the early 1970's. By 1971 he was ingesting a whopping 1,000 hits of speed a week, along with plentiful daily doses of tranquilizers. "The happiness pills," he admitted around that time, "are turning out to be nightmare pills." He entered a rehabilitation center shortly thereafter and in 1972, in a letter to a drug treatment center in Southern California, even offered his services as a counselor, having had, as he wrote, "five friends kill themselves on or as a result of acid trips — and seen many fine brains burned out on narcotics." The novel "A Scanner Darkly," which drew on his memories of that time, followed.
As in the book, the film finds Bob Arctor pursuing his drug-and-love connection, Donna (voiced by Winona Ryder), while Fred puts in time in front of a bank of video monitors, watching surveillance images of himself as Bob Arctor and his housemates, the prankster Barris (Robert Downey Jr.) and the joker Luckman (Woody Harrelson), vegetating amid their collective chaos and broken-down furniture. To protect his undercover identity, Fred often wears a "scramble suit," which turns him into a "vague blur" not unlike all the other vague blurs to whom he delivers antidrug speeches at the local Lions and Elks clubs. Not unlike the vague blur that Fred was once upon a married time, before he conked his head and, as Bob, started to turn on, tune in and drop out.
On its most basic level, the novel serves as a cautionary tale about the perils of drug abuse and indeed closes with a poignant roll call of Philip K. Dick's friends who had been lost, "punished" — as he wrote — "entirely too much for what they did." That said, to reduce the novel to a "just say no" diatribe would be to greatly miss one of its and its author's sustaining points. Drugs are generally a bad idea in "A Scanner Darkly," in the book and film both, though in the novel it's the real world or what we perceive the real world to be that makes for the more obviously bad trip, not scary little pills. "So-called 'reality,' " as Mr. Dick once said, "is a mass delusion that we've all been required to believe for reasons totally obscure."
Mr. Dick searched long and hard for those reasons, as both his frenetic work output (more than 40 novels, zillions of stories) and recreational drug use suggest. In 1980, two years before he died at 53 from a series of strokes, he described himself as an " 'acosmic panenthiest,' which means that I don't believe that the universe exists. I believe that the only thing that exists is God and he is more than the universe. The universe is an extension of God into space and time." Whether he was having some fun with his interviewers matters little; he had found a reasonable way to puzzle over those ballooning question marks that didn't require him to stay awake for days at a time with eyes and brain bugged and bugging.
As he did in an earlier film, "Waking Life," Mr. Linklater uses the animation technique called rotoscoping to translate Mr. Dick's worldview, mostly to fine expressive effect. With this technique, a version of which was used by early giants like Max Fleischer and even in the old Disney factory, animators directly trace over live-action images of performers. (What was once achieved through ink and paint is now accomplished through software.) The results tend to look fluid, almost as if the bodies were floating above the background visuals — an effect that appears to have been pushed in "A Scanner Darkly," where the bodies can appear almost liquid, as if the characters had been recently poured and had yet to harden into final shape.
Rotoscoping makes certain sense for a film about cognitive dissonance and alternative realities, though both the vocal and gestural performances by Mr. Reeves, Mr. Harrelson and, in particular, the wonderful Mr. Downey make me wish that we were watching them in live action. "A Scanner Darkly" has a kind of hypnotic visual appeal, and there's something very appropriate in how a chair in Bob Arctor's kitchen appears to hover above the floor, replicating the kind of time-space visual dislocations that can be produced through the consumption of hallucinogens. Even so, considering that the animation is not transcendently beautiful and that Mr. Downey has been pretty much out of commission lately, in part because of his own drug troubles, it would have been nice to see real shadows crossing his face.
"A Scanner Darkly" is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It has drug use, adult language and animated bare breasts.