The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
A Scanner Darkly

Written by James MacDowell.

Photo from the article

Printer friendly format [Normal view]

The old form vs. content (or 'style vs. substance') debate is a major one in discussions of all art mediums, but none it seems more so than cinema. This is probably because, while it is such a forthrightly surface-based artform, it is also one that has come to be primarily tied down to storytelling. Speaking broadly, unlike other wholly visual or aural artforms - music/painting/sculpture/photography - cinema is therefore almost always using its style to convey something other than the elements and very existence of its surface qualities. It is rare that a piece of film's aim is simply to be 'beautiful', for example. Equally, unlike other narrative mediums - the novel/theatre - its formal aspects push themselves to the forefront of our appreciation more forcefully simply by virtue of their very obviousness. It is difficult to imagine, for example, the general public taking notice of the arrival of stream-of-consciousness writing in literature, or the latest developments in theatrical lighting, as much as they did the coming of colour or CGI to cinema.

Despite how especially heightened the relationship between the two may be in film, however, the formula for success is the same as for any other medium. The best films are those that have a style that best complements their story or situation, and vice versa. To take some immediately obvious examples, the immensity and stately terror of space being conveyed by 2001's (1968) bold, gliding long-shot framings and slow tracking camera; the fractured lives and restless ideologies of Godard's films being illustrated via a broken, messy approach to editing and continuity; the celebratory use of colour and freeing swooping camera in the best MGM musicals: such cinema achieves a symbiosis of form and content that make it feel that one would truly be impossible without the other.

A Scanner Darkly does not belong up there with such great examples as these: its too-loose approach to its subject matter (no matter how faithful to Dick's source novel - I can't claim to have read it) occasionally results in a triumph of form over content that is never the case in truly exceptional films. However, Linklater's choice to use the technique of rotoscoping for this story is nevertheless a truly inspired one, and his employment of it all but faultless. This Alternate Take will therefore explore some of the many meanings the film's form conveys in relation to the subject it is depicting. This deserves noting because, though it is certainly not perfect in all respects, on this level A Scanner Darkly is - frankly - stunningly good.

The most obvious - and probably most important - theme that the animated style ties closely with is the theme of mind-altering drugs. The coda of the film - listing the friends Dick lost either to death or psychosis because of the drugs they took - confirms that this story is finally about the devastating effect these substances can have on the mind.

The first basic thing that strikes you about the rotoscoping is that the look it creates is gorgeous and hugely intriguing to look at. The colours used, dark and deep, are sumptuous, the lines and forms are crisp and satisfying, the realistic movement smooth and mesmerizing: everything about the visuals feels immediately fresh and seductive. This effortlessly mirrors the first wave of revelation and discovery one feels on virtually any drug (the fun aspects of drug-taking are also highlighted by the early extended scenes of confused comedy). As the film continues, however, something happens. We slowly become inevitably accustomed to the style: it no longer feels strange and new and we start to view it simply as normal - as just the way this world is. Thus we share the worrying experience of Arctor and all the characters addicted to Substance D: the unreal filter through which they see the world becomes their world.

A part of our brain always knows that what we are seeing isn't 'real' (as far as the cinematic image is ever real), but it is so like reality - just slightly knocked off course - we all but forget we are seeing it through a warped spectrum. There are also moments when the animation looks more like real life than others - Downey Jr, for example, is generally rendered more naturalistically than other characters and images glimpsed on surveillance screens sometimes seem almost as if they were shot on regular film: this gives us momentary jolts, making us want to cut through the screen to the image underneath. All this conveys succinctly and very effectively the more unsettling elements of drug mental experience, wherein one is conscious of the altered state of consciousness but powerless to do anything to rid ones self of it. All in all, in rotoscoping this story, I'm tempted to say that Linklater has found what may be the most powerful and meaningful method of stylistically representing a drug-addict's worldview that we have seen so far in cinema.

Needless to say, the underlying function of this style (and the drug-induced worldview it suggests) is the gulf it creates between what is 'real' and what is not, and also what it suggests about our ability to judge between the two - what it means to see "clearly" and "darkly" as Arctor puts it when pondering how a scanner sees. This broad theme, encompassed by the style, has reverberations for virtually all the supplemental ideas the film explores.

Firstly, on an initially almost mundane level, the most basic 'unreality' the form corresponds to is the double life Arctor leads of an undercover narcotics officer and drug-addicted drop-out. Released around the same time as we are served another tired rehashing of the old undercover-cop-becoming-too-involved-with-the-criminal-underworld motif in Miami Vice (2006), A Scanner Darkly presents us with perhaps the most extreme and profound example of this familiar formula imaginable. Not only do Arctor's addict friends not know who he really is, but his fellow officers too have no idea of his true identity, by virtue of the 'scramble suit' he always wears when he meets them. Thus his real self is only known by him alone, and - as his brain becomes increasingly fried - even this objective knowledge of his identity starts to be dissolved. He fully becomes the 'unreal' version of himself that he initially merely pretended to be: the 'form' he assumes becomes his 'content'.

Beyond the scope of the undercover cop theme, this dislocation clearly has meanings for the broader notions of identity that are Dick's bread and butter. In a situation such as this, what does the idea of one's self really mean? Is it possible to retain an essential essence when all vestiges of who you understand yourself to be have been stripped away? Such philosophical questions are undeniable underlying themes of this story and they are subtly and powerfully expressed by a style that constantly walks this tight-rope between 'real' and 'unreal' - one that distorts the usually instantly recognisable identities of the familiar people it represents.

I mentioned a few paragraphs back that the images Arctor watches of himself and his friends on the surveillance screens occasionally seem clearer and more 'real' than the rest of the action. This small point can lead us towards what could be said to be A Scanner Darkly's final theme of reality vs. unreality: the frighteningly oniscient power that governmental organisations hold over the general public in this Big Brother police-state view of the world. Like all conspiracy thrillers, it is revealed towards the end of the film that the problems facing our main character are being engineered by the highest possible forces; in this case, that means that the govenment-run facility for rehabilitating drug addicts, New Path, is actually growing the drug themselves. The purpose of this, we can assume, is to keep the population sedated, disenfranchised, so that the powers-that-be can have free reign to do as they wish whilst appearing like saviours. It seems to be working: the only voice of dissent we hear against what we come to realise is a terrifyingly efficient and omnipotent regime is Linklater's long-time political activist figure (seen before in Slacker [1991] and Waking Life [2001]), Alex Jones, and - unlike his previous incarnations - is here immediately arrested and thrown into the back of a police van for publically espousing his beliefs.

A people on drugs is a people not seeing things as they really are - not seeing political corruption, not seeing the problems in their society, and certainly not moved to do anything to fight against them. A people on drugs is a selfish, inward-looking people, amusing themselves with farfetched stoner conspiracy theories rather than seeing with a clear mind the true conspiracies going on around them. A people on drugs doesn't know who and what it really is, what it deserves - what its rights are. More than anything, a people on drugs can be easily manipulated and controlled by those who see clearly: those with the scanners...

Whilst the population trips, seeing through their scanners darkly, the men in the high towers with their surveillance and undercover eyes everywhere look down through their scanners and see all too clearly the pathetic, ineffectual mass of junkies they have created and what they need to do to keep them under control. This is the political meaning of the style. The rotoscoping is used to show us the world as we should strive to never see it - that is: through the unreal haze that those who seek to lead and control us would have us look through. It speaks of creeping apathy, of a postmodern disconnection from world events, of a helplessness to make a difference. The style conveys the sad motto of the bleak political thrillers of the 70s writ large: trust no one, not even yourself or your own view of the world, because they control it all.

It is a rare thing for an entire film's surface to so fully reflect the different facets of its subject as A Scanner Darkly's does - usually there may be a few shots, or a pervading stylistic mood, that closely tie theme with form, but not whole films that firmly and imaginatively do so like the one we have here. For this, Scanner must be praised most highly. It may not be transcendent in every way, but through its marrying of style and substance Linklater's latest resonates more completely than most other films this year.

This Alternate Take was published on September 18, 2006.