a scanner darklyWarner Independent Pictures

“I looked them up. They’re aphids. They’re in my hair, on my skin, in my lungs. And the pain, Barris, it’s unreasonable. They’re all over the place. Oh, they’ve completely gotten Millie too.”

The time: just beyond now. The place: suburbia. The story: a twisted, funny tale of people hooked on Substance D. And of a government that cheerfully destroys its citizens – their rights, their relationships – in order to save them. Strung-out friends terrified of each other and of spies. A spy who’s also one of the friends…until his two personalities begin to split. Enjoy the paranoia. Nobody’s watching you. Really.

To read a Philip K. Dick novel is a journey unto itself; having read two of his novels so far (neither of which were made into movies…yet), I can attest that his material can tend to get rather heady. Considering the man’s mental state, well, not too much of a surprise, really. Most of his material deals with issues of paranoia and questions of personal identity, which give his stories a certain quality about them that seems to resonate stronger in this day and age than it did when the author was alive.

And in case you were wondering, yes: I do get a rather juvenile kick out of asking, “Do you have any Dick in stock?” whenever I go to a book store. But anyway…

Unlike the more recent movies based on Philip K. Dick stories, A Scanner Darkly is a different kind of adaptation in that the entire movie was rotoscoped, a process where the already filmed parts are painted over cell-by-cell, animation style. Usually this is used as a special effects enhancement, like for the lightsabers and blasters in the original Star Wars movies. A Scanner Darkly, however, uses this process on the entire movie. Scenes were filmed with the actors – which features the likes of Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey, Jr., Winona Ryder, and Woody Harrelson – and then everything was animated over, giving the story an added visual surreal feeling to the already rather mind-blowing story itself. The result is…interesting, to say the very least.

The movie itself follows an undercover detective in a dystopian vision of the future, working with a small-time group of drug dealers of this highly brain-damaging psychotropic drug called Substance D to get to the big distributors of the stuff. Only, it turns out said detective has kind of a method actor style of immersing himself—i.e., he takes a bunch of it to really get the feel of it all, to get inside the heads of these users. He begins to exhibit behavior of schizophrenia, slowly losing his identity when he can’t tell the difference between what is real and what isn’t. It doesn’t end well, let’s just say.

Keep in mind, I haven’t read the book as of yet (it’s in the reading que), so I won’t be doing much in way of comparisons. However, as a movie itself, A Scanner Darkly manages to capture the qualities that make Dick’s stories so captivating. The rotoscoping adds to the dark surreal qualities and the paranoia. The performance by the cast was done well, and the overall quality was satisfying enough to keep my attention beyond the final credits.

Is this a movie that everyone is going to enjoy? Nope. That’s to be expected. This is a dark movie, and if you go into this without not knowing the source material, you may find A Scanner Darkly quite a bit off-putting. This isn’t your standard mass-market science fiction movie; it’s heady, and raises a lot of questions that will guarantee you will be chewing on after the movie ends. It has its flaws, yes, but I got quite a bit out of watching this. Recommended.