Okay, A Scanner Darkly (the film) is not that old that it really should be called a classic. But is one anyway. The novel on which the film is based is now thirty-five years old. The film turns six years old in July of this year, which should tell you something about the lasting dark appeal of the novel. Now, I will step up to the plate right here and admit that I have not read the novel. Unlike some assholes I can name, I did not rush out and buy an e-reader the second they were brought out because it is the hip, “noooooooow” thing to do. And unfortunately, controlling the flow of literature into a country like Arseholia is even easier than controlling the flow of unapproved films or music.
Having said all of that, I will tell you that my commentary here is limited to the actual film. A making-of documentary titled One Summer In Austin: The Story Of Filming A Scanner Darkly features commentary from no less an authority than Isa Dick Hackett, the daughter of author Philip K. Dick. Isa, for her part, has said in one place that I can recall that of all the film adaptations that have been made of her father’s work, A Scanner Darkly is the most faithful. From my point of view, it is not the best, but considering the scale we have for comparison, calling it the most faithful is a pretty high compliment in itself. (Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? became Blade Runner, which is mostly quite faithful to what it leaves in from the novella; We Can Remember It For You Wholesale became Total Recall, which pretty much parted ways with the original story after the Quaid character leaves Rekall, incorporated. There are other adaptations that are, shall we say, not very good even as films with preexisting source material.)
A Scanner Darkly is set at an indeterminate point in the future. Or rather, it is set “seven years from now”. Now, in this context, could mean when the film was made, or when the viewer is watching it. However, after all of the heady predictions about what the world would be like in year X made prior to the 1990s began to fail left and right (the original Lost In Space series is set in 1990), authors and screenwriters wised up a bit. Although predicting what will happen in the future is relatively easy (in the same sense that dying of multiple catastrophic injuries is easier than dying of bone cancer), predicting when it will happen is quite another matter.
Another golden rule of predicting the future in science fiction can be found in a common saying: he who ignores history is doomed to repeat it. All too often, new phases and ideas that are brought to society (the Internet, trade unions, aircraft, genetic research, you name it) follow similar patterns to similar things that have taken place in the past. In A Scanner Darkly, the basic societal quirk is that America (and presumably most of the world) has lost the “war on drugs”. The film focuses upon a small group of individuals who are addicted to a new drug called Substance D. Substance D is not a nice, dual-edged drug that could be made to do less harm if only the society dealing with it would change its tactics a bit. No, Substance D is a drug so addictive that no rehabilitation programs are available until the user has had a catastrophic meltdown on the drug and is now unable to function properly in society.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves a bit here. The first thing that a first-time viewer will notice when watching A Scanner Darkly is the peculiar style of the film. Years ago, somewhere around the time of my birth in fact, a film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien‘s The Lord Of The Rings was released unto the public. This adaptation, bereft of the sort of special effects that a certain ego I will not stroke by naming here pissed away to no avail by failing to respect the essential story, was a critical and commercial disaster. Part of the reason for the critical disaster was that in an effort to hide the storytelling difficulties posed by special effects problems, the director, Ralph Bakshi, chose to use a style of animation that involves filming actors in front of a special effects screen and then animating the finished image over the top of them. This technique, known as rotoscoping, can have wonderful effects when used properly. And by properly, I mean in a manner that respects the technique’s limitations, and combines said limitations with its strengths in order to create imagery that would simply not be possible otherwise. TRON is an example of a film that extensively used rotoscoping to good effect. All of the Star Wars films, even the recent CGI baby-fying-fests, use it to some degree in order to show lightsabre “blades”. And A Scanner Darkly is a film in which rotoscoping is used pretty much exclusively to good effect. Both the limitations and the strengths of the technique are in full force here. As Charles Freck (Rory Cochrane) hallucinates large insects all over his person and his home, he moves through the general area of the house, his shower, and his kitchen, scratching and shivering like what he is – a man having an acute loss of connection with reality. This scene shows right off the bat why they chose to rotoscope the whole film. The stuttery, unnatural movements that the Freck character effects would just not be possible for a real Human being to act out, leave the beholder with a sense that something is really wrong in this world. Freck does not so much move from place to place as he oozes from place to place, a style of movement I am sure Rory Cochrane would agree is simply not possible for an actor to convincingly perform in take after take.
The manner in which people move becomes a little more realistic when they are not in scenes that make them out to be in the midst of a drug-induced psychosis, but the filming technique still shows the same benefit to a degree. Another thing the film benefits from to a degree that is hard to express in words is that, much as was the case in Blade Runner, the casting agents were really on the ball here. Quite apart from the fact that the filmmaking techniques brought the Freck character to life, Rory Cochrane totally nails the aspect of falling further and further into a drug-induced abyss and wanting to get out in spite of how futile he knows his efforts to do so will be. But one of the best, if not the best collusion between character type and actor is Robert Downey junior as James Barris. Barris is one of the louts who actually live with the main character in his home. He is one of the characters that manages to really pull an interesting twist out of the air at the end. In many scenes, he comes across as a complete sociopath, only caring about the lives of his housemates in so far as it will get him further in his goals, such as access to more drugs.
The other slouch who is basically living for free with the main character is a fellow named Ernie Luckman. Luckman is played by one of the most confounding character actors I can think of, a man by the name of Woody Harrelson. Whenever Harrelson is in a film, you know right away that it is Harrelson, but when he is cast as a man of varying degrees of hick-ness (usually sounding slightly Texan), he takes those aspects and rides with them. Which makes it a good thing that he was cast as Luckman, by some road the most laid-back and unmotivated member of the whole circle. Whilst Freck and Barris are freaking out and breaking down or turning a blind eye to the desperation of alleged friends, Luckman is generally asleep. Whereas the other two are either sounding like a record being scratched or constantly yapping like dogs on amphetamines, Luckman’s words come at a premium and stand out more. This is especially clever since Luckman, and therefore Harrelson, gets nine out of ten of the best lines in the film. Probably my favourite is during a conversation whilst being towed home from an aborted attempt at a road trip. One of the many reams of words that comes out of Barris’ mouth hint that Barris, in an effort to catch out people he believes to be surveilling the house, has left cameras all over the place, the front door unlocked, and a note on said door making it clear that the door is unlocked. After several back-and-forths about whether Barris is just having them on, an exasperated Luckman asks Barris flat-out if Barris is just fukking with them. Punctuating it with one of my favourite statements to make to people I ask questions like that of: “I just simply never know with you”. Serious, hardcore stoners probably have conversations like this all the time.
I have made several references to a central protagonist in this film now, but have yet to mention his name. The man who actually owns the house, a gent who goes by the name of Robert Arctor, is portrayed by one Keanu Reeves. Apparently, director Richard Linklater immediately thought of Reeves for the role of Robert Arctor. So I guess there is something in the story that I am missing here. But the point is that even Keanu Reeves is better than his usual self here. To say too much about the character will dampen the surprises of the first-time viewing experience, but worth noting is that Reeves‘ portrayal of Robert Arctor comes across as a more grown-up version of the Ted Logan character, and this is actually beneficial to the film. In essence, Robert Arctor is a burnout who took a shitty job after missing one too many boats, and really feels tired of the world that has gone from being full of promise and wonder to just plain being shit. In the film, Reeves plays an undercover police officer known only to his colleagues as Fred, but to the people who gather around his home as Robert Arctor. During the course of his investigations, Arctor has wound up addicted to Substance D, and increasingly finds himself unable to understand that he and the tall, somewhat thin, shaggy-looking man he watches surveillance tapes of are the same person.
In fact, if you look at the capture attached to this paragraph, you can see one of the fundamental disadvantages of rotoscoping. Aside from the abrupt transitions from one skin tone to the next in the faces of Keanu Reeves and Woody Harrelson, the manner in which their facial hair grows is also difficult to represent this way. Representing very subtle details such as beard stubble or blotches in the skin is a difficult ask even for most video devices available in the home. The computer on which this post was written is capable of making the prickly, stubbly nature of my lower face very visible, but the monitor is 27 inches from corner to corner, with a dot count of slightly less than 3.7 million. Each and every one of those dots is made to count. In Flying Moose‘s critique of the aforementioned Bakshi production of The Lord Of The Rings, the author hints at the most serious limitation involved in rotoscoping, and one of the reasons why the very serious limits put on its use on TRON made the result shine. It is far easier to animate a large, sweeping gesture than it is to animate small, subtle movements. It is also far easier to create broad, sweeping patches of colour than to set little pin-pricks of colour (small moles, beard stubble, etc) into an area. Hence, one either has a week’s growth like the Rory Cochrane, Keanu Reeves, and Woody Harrelson characters, or a fairly smooth, almost baby-like face, like Robert Downey junior‘s character. I guess it does go some way to demonstrating how completely laid-back and content to be a stoner Luckman is that his facial hair is kept and groomed in a manner that no self-respecting male of a comparable age would put up with.
Which brings me to the final main character in this fun little episode of paranoia and discontent. The last character in Robert Arctor‘s small circle of friends is a small but fiery woman by the name of Donna Hawthorne. What makes the casting fortutious here is that Winona Ryder, the woman playing her, has also seen some precipitous ups and downs in her career during the twenty years prior to A Scanner Darkly. After getting a great role in the Tim Burton classic Beetlejuice, she could have carved out a little niche playing a feminine version of the sort of characters that Kyle MacLachlan was famous for. Unfortunately, the alluring call of the mainstream was too strong, and she ended up falling flat on her face through much of the 1990s and 2000s. A Scanner Darkly is not a complete return to the kind of role where she excelled (ie the “weirdo” character), but it does have a similar dynamic to the role Keanu Reeves is portraying. It is like a more grown-up or older version of the role they got the most notice in. Donna Hawthorne is the most level-headed of the main characters, but also has her own issues with addiction (mostly to cocaine), which unfortunately are not really developed well enough in the film to make a lot of difference. In fact, Ryder‘s role presents the most thankless job in the film. Ryder ends up with the lion’s share of the exposition, especially towards the end when we learn exactly why the police have been paying Robert Arctor to hang around a small group of no-account stoners.
In fact, although it seems fairly logical and straightforward when viewed in hindsight, the final scenes of A Scanner Darkly present one of the most cracking plot twists. I will not go into detail about it here, except to say that when one sees the final shot, one will be taken aback by a clear parallel to the manner in which big corporations have been allowed to subvert or even bypass our laws for profit. Although America is still the only country on this gray Earth that allows private corporations to dictate customer healthcare choices, that also makes it the only place on Earth where one can imagine the Substance D “epidemic” being tolerated once one understands the full structure of relationships and factions within the story.
A Scanner Darkly, sadly, did not turn out to be a rousing success at the box office. Given that it was released on the “independent” label that Warner Bros. maintained at the time, there is some credibility to the speculation that Warner Bros. intended for the film to become at least a slight write-off for tax purposes. Warner Bros. was also the main financier of the other great Philip K. Dick adaptation, Blade Runner. What happened there was that the Ladd Company and Warner Bros. financed the making of Blade Runner, which, after the box office-centric bullshit is decoded, can be estimated to have lost at least ten million dollars. Not a catastrophic sum, even in 1982, but hardly the raging success that film studios aim for. Fortunately, thanks to massive changes in the whole structure of the film business, A Scanner Darkly will never have to live in the obscurity that befell Blade Runner during much of the VHS era.
Unfortunately, when the time came to test the waters for high definition media, Warner Bros. believed it would be okay to release certain “not A-list” titles with only lossy audio. And with interlaced transfers. A Scanner Darkly was one title affected by this policy, and whilst the sound does not suffer too much from the lossy compression due to mostly being dialogue driven, there are moments when Warners mistaking interlaced for being the same thing as progressive come through on the Blu-ray Disc, and in a few shots it looks godawful. The whole reason Sony and other Japanese corporations decided that now would be a good time to switch video to progressive is because as the ratio between screen size and price fell precipitously during the 2000s, technician and customer alike were noticing that interlaced video does not tend to look very good at large screen sizes. They also noticed that, contrary to what regressionists want us to think, “deinterlacing” is no solution at all to the problem. As people who have tried to watch Lucas-approved Star Wars DVDs on large screens have found out the hard way, all the deinterlacing in the world cannot prevent seizures if you are prone to seizing as a result of the imperceptible effects of interlacing.
Will we ever see a fixed-up and properly-presented A Scanner Darkly on Blu-ray Disc? Who knows. Recently, Warner Bros. released a boxed set of all of the Superman films, including the versions nobody with any real taste likes to talk about, on Blu-ray Disc. All seven films were given proper progressive transfers and soundtracks with lossless compression, so do not discount the possibility. But given how long it took for Warner Bros. to do this with a set of films where the first two were blockbusters the size of Jupiter, I would not hold my breath.
Whilst I do not anticipate any positive results anytime soon, my search for A Scanner Darkly in some readable format will continue. If you have not partaken of the Richard Linklater film based on it as yet, then please do. It deserved a much better reception than it ended up getting, especially in these “everyone is a child” times.