Before Before Midnight, Richard Linklater wrote and directed A Scanner Darkly, a true cinematic oddity from 2006. Like most good sci-fi it’s based on a Philip K. Dick novel, and deserves to be celebrated as an understated masterpiece.
The first interesting thing about the film is its design. It’s animated using rotoscope – a technique whereby the film is shot as live action, but each frame is drawn over by hand, giving A Scanner Darkly its unique visual style. The result looks like Archer-on-acid; there’s a psychedelic comic-book effect which feels like watching real life but slightly alien. This is perfect given the content of the movie.
It’s seven years in the future (which, given that the film was released seven years ago, would make it the present day) and 20% of Americans are addicted to a drug called Substance D. The government have resorted to invasive surveillance measures including a network of informants such as Fred (Keanu Reeves), who is working deep undercover amongst a houseful of addicts.
Inspired by Philip K. Dick’s own life, himself a drug addict and a target of government surveillance, the story is a thoughtful exploration of paranoia and addiction. The novel was written in the wake of the Watergate scandal and in the midst of Cold War paranoia, but those themes resonate just as strongly today, when we’re constantly monitored by CCTV and telephone records are collected by the NSA. Maybe that seven year prediction wasn’t so far off.
These themes and ideas make A Scanner Darkly more than just a weird cartoon. The strangeness and substance make it much more interesting than Linklater’s Before movies, and his flare for naturalistic dialogue is just as apparent here. But rather than the pretentious burbling of Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, the dialogue in A Scanner Darkly is at times Tarantino-esque.
Those words sound particularly brilliant from the mouth of Robert Downey Jr., who spits out neologisms and monologues in a frenetic, animated (literally) performance. Woody Harrelson and Rory Cochrane give similarly unhinged turns, but it’s Winona Ryder who ends up stealing the show.
This all makes for a film that’s funny, thoughtful and moving, and should be seen as a modern sci-fi classic. Linklater successfully retains the story’s personal connection to Philip K. Dick and it’s superior to some other adaptations of the great sci-fi pioneer’s work, such as the thematically similar Minority Report. It looks excellent but beneath its clever visuals lie foundations of strong ideas, characters and a scathing satire of the war on drugs. At a time when sci-fi films often feel too familiar, A Scanner Darkly is something genuinely unique. And if the NSA are reading this – which, let’s face it, they are – I’d like to say what a great job they’re doing…