Based on the book from well-known science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, Darkly intertwines – and ultimately manipulates the boundaries between – reality and illusion, creating a hyper-reality where nothing is really as it seems. It is at this point that an unknown voice gently sweeps over the caffeinated crowd of antsy journalists: “How much truth is in fiction?”
OK. If anyone at the conference could even attempt a half-assed response to that question, there would be a large, amoeba-like mass of enlightened journalists spreading wisdom to the greater Los Angeles area. How terrifying. Instead, that amorphous blob remained stationary as a tweaked out herd of writers anxiously awaiting any type of noise to break the hermetic seal of silence that overtook the room. Then she laughs.
Winona Ryder stars as Donna, one of the three junkies that wander in and out of reality in the drug-addled world of A Scanner Darkly . Set in a futuristic Orange County, the film rotates around Ryder's character and her interaction with fellow drug abusers James Barris (Robert Downey Jr.) and Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves).
Forced to exist in a future where abuse of fictional narcotic Substance D is nearing an epidemic, the three bum through life in perpetual states of paranoia, fear and confusion. And highs.
Arctor works undercover for a government agency trying to stop the distribution of Substance D while Barris acts as an underground informant of sorts. The narrative gets rather complicated and becomes a trip all its own, landing the viewer in the middle of an existential quandary and even asking questions like the one posed in the middle of the afternoon press conference.
Ms. Ryder, with a chuckle and a swig of water, passes the question off to the director. Linklater, instead of feigning what he knows to be an insufficient answer, seems entertained that this pesky little question has come up.
The film's visual style is attained through a technique known as rotoscoping – essentially a computer variation of animation. This creates a fluid aesthetic where the images are always in a state of transition. Everything moves.
The visual style becomes a blend of watercolor, paint, and sculpture all put into motion. The animation, Linklater explains, “parallels the reality-illusion play of Phil's work. It was good for the script.”
The real genius of rotoscoping manifests itself in the scramble suit, the undercover uniform that keeps Arctor from being recognized by anyone. An amalgam of identities, the scramble suit changes every few frames. More difficult to animate than Waking Life , it required 500 hours to make one minute of A Scanner Darkly .
Despite the logistical challenges of making the film, both Reeves and Ryder refused to let a little thing like technology hinder their involvement with it. Linklater describes the characters as “a little more tweaked out,” perhaps making Ryder's job more difficult. But she has full faith in Linklater's direction explaining that he makes “you participate in [the film] and forc[es] you to search out what you feel is the truth.” Ah, there it is again … that troublesome little syllable: “truth.”
Reeves also has complete trust in the director, but takes a different approach to mastering his character. “I took the book along with me … I would read it and feel it and try to match it until I felt like the character was in the right place.”
Both actors diligently worked over not just their own characters, but the character of the book/film as a whole. A Scanner Darkly isn't only about tweakers on trips.
Carrying intensely obvious social and political commentary (what Reeves refers to as a “cautionary commentary of the world we live in”), Darkly balances the densely textured subject matter with copious amounts of snappy dialogue. In fact, if audiences are at all dazed and confused, they'll miss the punch lines completely.
Ryder observes, “The more terrifying it gets, the more people have to find humor.” Downey's character – by far the most neurotic and comedic of the three – fuses well with the actor's natural persona. As for terrifying, if we synchronize Reeves' and Ryder's theories, humor might be the only truth left in a world as saturated with fear and paranoia as that of Darkly .
With all clichés and punch lines aside, A Scanner Darkly – despite being an animated film – is not to be taken lightly. This is not another Pixar wonderwork produced with ‘fun for the whole family' in mind. What Linklater calls the “most authentic to its source material” of any Philip K. Dick adaptation, the film embraces the chaos of the novel in a way that only pseudo-animated, witty-yet-painfully-relevant, tweaked-out drug pushers can. The characters are forced to reconcile with this messy concept called truth; and reality; and the fine line between.
This article is not going to bookend itself with a cute little definition of truth, thus bringing the story full circle and solving the dilemma posited at the start. In fact, perhaps a more stimulating conclusion would be to pose a new question equally as bothersome as the first.
That is, after all what Philip K. Dick would want – to ask more questions; to make it more unsettling; to bring into doubt everything you thought you knew about your world. I simply cannot do this. My world is chaotic enough that I cannot begin to tackle the nature of truth and illusion.
I can, however, continue to gently tread the fragile boundary between both. Perhaps that's all we really can do – walk the line between the two realms, and hope that we end up on the right side.
A Scanner Darkly releases in theaters July 7.