Keanu’s amazing Technicolor dream cloak
Abbey presents dark, stylish sci-fi drug tale

by Judith Reynolds

Everything shivers, shakes. Figures in motion. Fingers floating. Faces coming in and out of focus.

The process is called rotoscoping, and it’s perfectly suited to the slippery subject of Richard Linklater’s film, “A Scanner Darkly.” Adapted from Philip K. Dick’s 1977 sci-fi novel of the same title, the movie employs the most eerie animation technique invented.

In early rotoscoping, animators traced directly over live-action images with ink and paint. Now a software program does the job. You can easily identify the actors, but the effect is so fluid the likes of Keanu Reeves and Robert Downey Jr. slither about the screen as if they were the darkest serpents in cinematic history.

By choosing rotoscoping, Linklater has matched style to subject. He did something similar in “Waking Life” (2001), and the upgrade is noticeable. If you can stand the dizzying effects of this hyper-fluid technique, you’ll get pulled into the story. As the film progresses, an undercover cop (Reeves), known as Fred at the precinct and Bob Arctor in the drug world, sinks deeper into an abyss of paranoia and hallucination.

Set in 2013, the film portrays Arctor embedded in California’s dropout culture while periodically reporting to HQ. To protect his double identity, Arctor wears a Scramble Suit – the main plot reason, it seems, for animating the film in the first place. Encoded with a million-plus identity patches, the suit constantly shifts the age, gender and ethnicity of the wearer.

Drawing on the grand tradition of fairy tales, the original author and the adapter have seemingly reworked the idea of a “magic cloak.” To make it more fantastic, chief animator Bob Sabiston shows us three aspects: the cloak’s flickering exterior, what the cop sees through the veil of his disguise, and lastly, a close-up of the man inside the mask revealing his thoughts in voice over. These permutations underscore two principal themes: how experience is often densely layered and how identity shifts and morphs.

The plot hinges on America’s newest drug of choice: Substance D, which stands for death, which rhymes with meth (but don’t get me started). D has engendered a flashy new treatment program, New Path, a parallel plot line with surprising turns.

Arctor’s assignment to infiltrate the world of Substance D becomes impaired by his growing addiction. He’s also compromised by his zoned-out cronies (Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, Rory Cochrane and Winona Ryder), lending a thick glaze of paranoia to the plot. Some of the funniest scenes involve the trio of guys in extended, nonsensical conversations. Some of the best scenes show Fred/Arctor being tested for bilateral dysfunction, a complete disconnect between the brain’s hemispheres. With a pair of know-it-all technicians, the convention of the mad scientist gets resurrected, and soon the plot shifts into high sci-fi gear.

“Scanner” is the eighth film based on a Philip K. Dick novel. The most famous is probably Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner.” It appeared in1982, the same year the author died from a heart attack following a series of strokes at the age of 53. Others films include “Total Recall,” “Minority Report,” “Screamers” and “Paycheck.”

Dick wrote about drug abuse from first-hand experience. He also specialized in conspiracies and the irrational, saying that “… so-called ‘reality’ is a mass delusion that we’ve all been required to believe for reasons totally obscure.”

In the early ’70s, after five friends died of drug complications or committed suicide, Dick entered rehab. At the end of “Scanner,” the director has included a long list of the author’s friends whom he identified as either dead or permanently damaged as a result of drug abuse. To say “Scanner” is a cautionary tale is an understatement. I’m neither a sci-fi fan nor a Philip K. Dick follower, but this odd film pushes the art of animation into a new arena by matching adult content with a compelling visual form. •