Monday, September 18, 2006

A Scanner Darkly ... and a headache quickly

I settled into my favourite seat in Screen 2 of the Curzon Soho to watch A Scanner Darkly on Thursday night. My interest had been excited by the trailer before the lacklustre Little Fish about a month ago.

Until I read the Curzon’s programme, I wasn’t even aware that the film was based on a science fiction novel by Philip K Dick. Problem: the film wouldn’t make me want to read the book.

Ok, so I was tired and weary. But if the film hadn’t been rotoscoped, I’m not sure I would have stayed awake. The story would have appeared weak and uninteresting if I’d experienced the original high-resolution visuals. Instead, the cartoon-like story carried the plot with clever animations and smart use of the rotoscope form.

The Guardian review by Philip French explains:

"A Scanner Darkly was shot as a conventional movie in digital video then transformed into an animated movie through a process called “interpolated rotoscoping”. The actors retain their voices, but they're turned into cartoon figures clearly resembling themselves yet becoming somehow dreamlike and abstracted. The effect is highly unsettling, like flicking quickly through the pages of a graphic novel."

It’s a story about characters in a world addicted to drugs, set about seven years in the future. Substance D (D for Death) dominates society. “You're either on it or you've never tried it.” Bob Arctor, played by Keanu Reeves, walked out on his wife and children when it all got too tough. He now lives in a house full of addicts, all messed up and paranoid about the police state and the current crack down on drug use.

But Arctor leads a double life. He’s an undercover narcotics agent, who works in a scramble suit (which disguises his appearance and keeps animators in jobs) so he isn’t recognised on the streets. He ends up being commissioned to spy on his own household, his boss being unaware of which character he actually is since they all wear their scramble suits in work. And being cornered taking Substance D in the line of duty isn’t good for Arctor’s health or employment.

There’s a twist at the end, but you’ll see it coming.

A Scanner Darkly is art, but it’s a pulsing, psychedelic, disturbing vision that is easier to watch with your eyes closed than engage with the headache-inducing imagery. And while the story is a wake up call to our society that is increasingly liberal in our views of recreational drug use, it’s one I was only too glad to leave at Screen 2.

At the Curzon’s entrance (and plastered over the rest of the West End), there were lots of posters and leaflets to announce that Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait is opening in cinemas on 29 September, presumably getting a much wider release die to his World Cup escapade that would otherwise have been possible.

Now just to get a babysitter so we can both go and see Little Miss Sunshine ...


John Self said...

Dick must be the greatest source of film adaptations after Shakespeare: Total Recall, Bladerunner, Minority Report, Paycheck, etc. etc. all come from his books or stories. He's usually worth a read, though I've avoided A Scanner Darkly so far as it's one of his late works, 'late' here being a euphemism for 'particularly drug-addled even by his standards'. I've read his next book from around that time, Valis, which was completely barmy and as a result quite boring.

Nonetheless Dick's novels are often excellent, and much of the stuff from his most productive period in the 1960s is well worth a look. Ubik, his alternative history novel (and probably his masterpiece) The Man in the High Castle, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch and Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said are probably among the cream of the crop.

Richard Linklater, the director of A Scanner Darkly, used the rotoscoping technique in his earlier film Waking Life. Now that really was a sleep-inducer.

ian said...

The thing I disliked most about the film was the way you got no sense of how much fun you can get from drøgs. There was nothing about Substance D that made it look like anything anyone would want to take.

Alan in Belfast (Alan Meban) said...

But given the state of Dick's life when he wrote the book, it's not surprising that his reality informed his anti-drug position.

He wasn't exactly in a good position to portray recreational drug use as "fun" - rather it was killing him and he knew it.

And if Substance D was part of the culture, maybe the peer pressure and normality of using it was a big enough draw to get more people involved?