Monday, September 04, 2006

A Scanner Darkly

Now this is a weird film.

A Scanner Darkly is Richard Linklater's adaptation of the Philip K Dick novel. Dick was always big on paranoia, and good god, this is a paranoid film. It's also the second time Linklater has made a film entirely in rotoscoping (which starts with live action and then digitally turns the whole thing into animation), following from the also-weird Waking Life.

This time round, there's a plot. Kind of. Set an implausible 7 years into the future, 20% of Americans are addicted to something called Substance D. Keanu Reeves plays Bob Arctor, an undercover cop in an organisation so secretive that everyone has to wear "scramble suits" that blur out their appearance and replace them with endlessly changing images of other people. (This is the bit that would be have been painfully expensive in live action, but comes in on budget thanks to rotoscoping.) Since none of his colleagues actually know who he is either, Arctor has somehow ended up doing surveillance on himself. Possibly. He's not quite sure any more. Because Arctor has taken his undercover duties so seriously that he's hopelessly addicted to Substance D himself and can barely think straight. Quite how he got to this point, he's no longer sure.

In fact, most of the characters are also on Substance D, and since they're all delusionally paranoid, it's often unclear what's really happening and what's just paranoia. That's the point. Although there is a proper plot, it's not really the focus of the film. It's more a character piece, as Arctor and his supporting cast spiral off into total insanity, none of them really sure what they're doing or why.

As you can imagine, it takes a while to get a handle on it. About twenty minutes in, I was totally lost. After a while, I figured out that it was meant to be utterly confusing, and that "What the hell is going on here?" was precisely the question I was meant to be asking. Once you get a grip on that, the film develops more shape - rest assured, it does build to a clear explanation of what's happening. (And, in a roundabout way, a clear explanation of why the film places so little emphasis on what would normally be its plot. Without giving away the ending, this is a film about Arctor's character being crushed by circumstances, not a film about the circumstances themselves.)

I should probably go and see the film again, come to think of it, to see if I get any more out of the first half now that I know what's happening. It's certainly a film that's likely to repay repeating viewings, if only because it's so challenging to decipher on the first time round.

Rotoscoping is an odd technique that could easily come across as gimmickry. But it works in this film, for a number of reasons. It disguises the fact that we're not really in the future. It allows special effects like the scramble suits to be done in a way that serves the concept and the story, rather than becoming set-pieces for the CGI guys. And most of all, the weird instability of rotoscoping works perfectly to give a sense of how these addled characters see the world. There are some things rotoscoping struggles with - multiple planes of motion confuse it enormously, for example - but in this film, the slightly sickly swaying of the background actually works to advantage.

At first glance, Keanu Reeves seems an odd choice for the lead character. You've got a film-making technique that covers up the actor entirely; you might think that calls for a powerful physical performance. We get one of those in the supporting cast, from Robert Downey Jr. Oddly enough, the more physical the actor, the less effective the rotoscope technique is - the body language comes through too perfectly, and it doesn't seem animated. Reeves' passive confusion actually feels more suitable for animation.

It's a damnably odd film, and considering that it's basically a slow-burn descent into madness rather than something more plot-driven, it could probably stand to lose fifteen minutes or so. I still can't quite decide in my own mind whether it's a real artistic success or a very, very intriguing and ambitious curio. But either way, it's fascinating.