In 1977 sci-fi writer Phillip K. Dick wrote a nightmarish novel about drug-fueled paranoia, Big Brother style government surveillance and personal rights based on his own experiences as a drug addict. Prolific director Richard Linklater has taken pains with this material, turning the counter culture A Scanner Darkly into an intriguingly entertaining animated movie.
At the base of the story is a highly addictive drug called Substance D, so named for causing “dumbness, despair, desertion and death”. It appears that the government is weaning addicts off other drugs so they can then become hooked on the moneymaking Substance D, which the government controls the rights to. Caught in the web of the drug are the main characters, played by Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr and Woody Harrelson.
The actors didn’t simply lend their voices to the film, as is the case with most traditional animation. In this case the entire movie was shot on video and then rotoscoped, a time-consuming process in which each live-action frame is painted by hand. The result is a lurid dreamscape that lends an appropriately surreal tone to the story. The look of the “scramble suit,” a psychedelic cloak that alters the wearer’s appearance, is nicely rendered by the rotoscope process.
On the downside the animation flattens some of the performances. Reeves and Winona Ryder seem to get lost under the layers of paint. Only Robert Downey Jr’s manic performance can really transcend the animation. His energy is based on something more than simply his years of real-life experience with drugs; it is a funny, sad and intelligent performance from one of the best actors working today.
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