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Scanner Darkly, A

Entry updated 10 February 2017. Tagged: Film.

Film (2006). Warner Independent Pictures in association with Thousand Words presents a Section Eight/Detour Filmproduction/3 Arts Entertainment production. Written and directed by Richard Linklater; based on A Scanner Darkly (1977) by Philip K Dick. Cast includes Robert Downey Jr, Woody Harrelson, Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder. 96 minutes. Colour.

Seven years in the future, undercover narcotics officers run scanner surveillance on suspects from a central hub, wearing identity-masking "scramble suits" to keep their real appearance secret from fellow agents, as they hunt the source of the highly addictive Drug Substance D, which is suspected to be produced by the very organisation, New Path, that fronts as a rehab operation for its own addicts. When agent Fred (Reeves) is assigned to surveillance of his own undercover persona, the effects of his Substance D use on the job trigger a dissociative breakdown between the two halves of his Identity; he is delivered to New Path for treatment, and it is revealed that his scramble-suited boss Hank is his girlfriend Donna (Ryder), herself an undercover agent reluctantly complicit in a plan to infiltrate New Path by deliberately inducing addiction and cognitive collapse in Bob – who it is hoped will retain enough instinctive memory of his investigative role to recognize and smuggle out the necessary evidence.

Attempts had been made to film Dick's novel since the mid-1980s, most notably by Terry Gilliam in the early 1990s and by the Australian director Emma-Kate Croghan in 1996-1999 with a screenplay by Charlie Kaufman. Linklater's version was radical in two respects: its use of the digital rotoscoping techniques pioneered in his Waking Life (2001), with the film shot and edited in live action and the results then animated over in 18 months of post-production; and its close consultation with the Dick estate, with Dick's daughters involved in the production, and dialogue and narration taken largely verbatim from the novel. Linklater's script cycles some elements from Kaufman's 1997 draft, but streamlines the cast with some judicious character merges, and makes New Path suspect from the start rather than as a climactic twist, which by 2006 would have seemed more timeworn than it had thirty years earlier. The rotoscoping technique gives the film's texture of reality a comics-like surface and a hallucinatory heightenedness and plasticity that folds qualities of animation into naturalistic live action, as well as serving as a cinematic scramble suit that masks actors' traditional stamps of identity and attunes a different way of watching screen performance. Thus Linklater's version heightens the Donna character's conflictedness by introducing the revelation that she is not merely a fellow agent but Fred's immediate superior and the instigator of his investigation – but perceptive viewers will already have captured hints from small nuances of body language and outline that survive through the scramble-suit of superanimation. The novel's world, characters, and storyline are replicated with fidelity and to great effect; among the many films made from Dick's work (see Cinema), none of them uninteresting, it is by far the most respectful, and has made the least money of all. [NL]


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