Running Time: 100 minutes.
Rated: Rated M.
The ambiguous hero of this version of the novel by Philip K. Dick, ruminates on the scanners that abound in the future society and prefers that they see clearly, really see the real person, than scan darkly. He is absolutely right but mainstream audiences may well feel that the film is sometimes too obscure and unclear, too much dramatised darkly.
This is what they call a cult film. It means that it appeals to a niche audience, the readers of Philip K. Dick's novels and short stories and the fans of the films based on them. There are quite a few. Blade Runner is the best known and appreciated. But, there are also Total Recall, Impostor, Minority Report and Paycheck. Dick has attracted top directors, Ridley Scott, Paul Verhoeven, Steven Spielberg, John Woo.
This time it is cult director, Richard Linklater, who came to prominence with his 'slacker' comedies, Dazed and Confused and SubUrbia. He is a director who likes words, lots of reflective conversations and philosophical reflections about life (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Tape). This is especially true of his 2001 film, Waking Life. But, what was distinctive about Waking Life was that computer animation was superimposed, painting on the live action by a process called interpolating-rotoscoping.
Rotoscoping returns with A Scanner Darkly. It suits the Dick storytelling, a surreal surface overlaying reality. (In fact, in the story, the central character wears a special suit for surveillance that is continually changing features, gender and clothing, very effectively achieved through animation.) This makes the film look like a cinematic graphic novel.
Dick died aged 54 through drug complications. This plot is about drugs, a particularly mind altering and destroying drug. A special agent (Keanu Reeves) is commissioned to investigate, survey his friends and a dealer and report. However, he is an experiment, set up by government to track the drug and the institution which produces and is alleged to cure addiction. It destroys his brain and he cannot tell whether he is himself or the agent he creates. Reeves has a solid track record, Johnny Mnemonic, Matrix, Constantine, for portraying this kind of character with confused and lost identity.
Robert Downey Jr does another of his clever logorrhoea-like performances as do Woody Harrelson and Rory Cochrane. Winona Ryder is ultimately even more ambiguous as dealer, agent, controller.
Needless to say, technically with the rotoscoping animation, the use of lighting and colour, the clarity and blurring of the actors, the film is a cinematic tour-de-force. But, whether it excites interest beyond those in the know, is quite another question.
Fr Peter Malone MSC directs the film desk of SIGNIS: the World Association of Catholic Communicators, and an associate of the Australian Catholic Film Office