So recently we watched A Scanner Darkly, the film adaptation, by Richard Linklater, of the book of the same name, which I read last month.
This is a film by Richard Linklater, of Waking Life fame*:
I don’t normally scurry right off to watch the film version of a book after reading it, but A Scanner Darkly is not a standard regular motion picture; it’s rotoscoped, meaning that they filmed the actors actually going about the business of making a movie, then drew over them, producing a weirdly lifelike-yet-not animation effect that sometimes veers into Uncanny Valley territory. I was extremely interested to find out what the filmmakers did with this. Let’s watch as Keanu Reeves approaches his house in a standard regular Orange County cul-de-sac rendered alien by the rotoscoping technique:
Or this scene, where Decoy Protagonist Charles Freck botches a suicide attempt:
Much of the film is like this, taking advantage of the reality-bending opportunities afforded by the animation layer to bring to life the distorted worldview of the characters. The entire premise of the book, after all, and therefore of the film, is that it’s one long “This is your brain on drugs” cautionary tale, which I don’t think would have been captured by straight-up filmmaking.
Now, all that having been said, as the longtime reader of this blog may have picked up on, or as I may have outright stated at some point—after 14 years of blogging, who can remember everything they ever posted?**—my wife is not any sort of fan of animated films, with the following being the only exceptions I can think of off the top of my head:
So as you can imagine, she immediately cottoned to the fact that This Movie Is A Cartoon.
Me: “Well, it’s not a cartoon cartoon. It’s rotoscoped, like the ‘Take On Me’ video. So they actually filmed Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey, Jr., Woody Harrelson, and Winona Ryder.”
Wife (dubious): “Uh-huh.”
And she was put off right up front when A Scanner Darkly jumped right into graphically illustrating the phantasmal insects that plague Charles Freck. And his dog:
Wife: “Yuck. That’s gross.”
Me: “Well, they’re just imaginary. But check out the border collie!”
She did check out the border collie, but once the dog disappeared from the scene, so did whatever interest my wife had in the film:
Wife: “Yeah this ‘rotoscoping’ works for an a-ha video but not for an entire movie.”
Me: “Do you want to watch something else?”
Wife: “Yes. Or you could watch this and rub my feet.”
And so she played on her phone and I watched about another 20-30 minutes of A Scanner Darkly and rubbed my wife’s feet, until:
Wife: “All right, let’s watch something else now.”
At this point we switched over to a few episodes of the old sitcoms on HBO Max that got us through most of the pandemic***.
Wife: (points at foot cream)
Me: “But we’re not watching A Scanner Darkly. We had a deal, remember? I rub your feet and watch A Scanner Darkly.”
Wife: “Fine, we can watch more of your cartoon.”
But of course I did not make her watch more of my cartoon, I just gave her more foot rubs while we watched the sitcoms. After those were finished, though, I did switch back to the movie, which my wife watched—or, more accurately, stared at accusingly—for a few more minutes before dropping her final judgment on the cons of rotoscoping (there being, of course, no pros):
Wife: “Why would they pay all that money for these big name actors and then draw on top of them?”
Me: “To get that kind of drug-induced altered reality, look I guess. It’s actually pretty effective.”
Wife: “Well, I could see drawing over Keanu because he usually just has the one expression, but who would want to draw over Tony Stark?!”
At this point my wife didn’t just go back to sleep; she actually got up off the couch and went to bed, so scandalized was she that someone would scribble all over Tony Stark. Which, I mean, I suppose I can see her point:
But I wasn’t complaining about somebody drawing all over Veronica Sawyer:
I guess even in the Uncanny Valley, Winona Ryder is still Winona Ryder …
* Yeah, yeah, he also made Slacker and Dazed and Confused, but I know him as the Waking Life guy.
** I mean, I could go back and look through old posts to see if I ever said “My wife doesn’t like animation”, because The Internet Never Forgets, but quite frankly it’s not that important.
*** The New Adventures of Old Christine and Big Bang Theory, for those who are keeping track.
5 thoughts on “Not A Review Of “A Scanner Darkly””
Spirited Away was a fantastic animated movie. Super anime, one of the best.
Robert Downey Jr. looks rather weird rotoscoped. That’s a shame. I like his face. Winona looks pretty much like Winona.
I liked your not-a-review of Scanner Darkly, a flick I’ve had on my to-watch for a while but still haven’t sat down to it. It’s just the rotoscoping that put me off. Like your wife thought, why pay the big bucks for some top name cast members only to get them in cartoon style? I love the idea, but not to watch the whole thing. Maybe it’ll be different once you settle in to it.
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Damn, I can so relate to your wife 🙂
Have you tried Whisper of the Heart or The Cat Returns? For a start, there’s cats in it.
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When I first saw the animation in the trailer, I for one expected this movie to be something special, even though I hadn’t read the book by Philip K. Dick that it was based on. So the story itself more easily drew me in than the animation, as the quite obvious departure it was from how most other filmmakers have mistreated the true values of PKD’s source material.
I thought that Keanu Reeves was better here than he was in The Matrix, with Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson and Winona Ryder all remarkably giving their best. It also had an impressive twist that I never saw coming which, like any successful twist, made enough sense to help clarify the story and the message.
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The movie was quite faithful to the book, unlike a lot of adaptations. It did make a few changes, one of which was huge (I can’t say what it was because it’s a massive spoiler), but even that didn’t contradict the book in any way and, I thought, actually improved the story.
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Richard Linklater was a most thoughtful director for that. And for a cautionary tale on the futuristic consequences of exploiting drug addictions, this was one PKD classic that certainly deserved the best treatment.
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