Thursday, June 7, 2012

LIE #13: Why Use Animation to Be Mundane? (a negative review of “A Scanner Darkly”)

A Scanner Darkly (2006; Richard Linklater) is an interesting failure.
It deserves praise for being the most faithful cinematic adaptation of a Philip K. Dick novel, but for me, the problem is its animation: Man, I can’t stand to look at this thing.

First a caveat: A Scanner Darkly is one of my favorite novels, and I’ve reread it several times over the past 20 years—so any film based on this book already has an uphill battle.

A magnificent and regretful novel about drug dependency and societal control, the plot is about an undercover cop trying to bust a drug dealer. But because the cop’s gotten addicted to “Substance D,” he’s become schizoid, and “forgets” that he is the drug dealer (it was his “cover” to enter the dope world).
Because undercover cops wear “scramble suits” when at headquarters (to protect their undercover identities from being recognized by snitches or arrested dopers), the cop doesn’t even recognize himself when watching the tapes from the hidden surveillance cameras in his house.

Director-screenwriter Linklater was, I think, too damn respectful to the source novel, treating the proceedings with a reverence that may have felt deserved, but was a hindrance as well, as it also created a vague feeling that the cast wasn’t busting loose like they should’ve been, like they were restrained.

And the last thing a movie about dope fiends should be is visually uninspiring.

It boils down to this:
I “get” rotoscoping the actors—it visually establishes their disconnect from “reality”—but why rotoscope the backgrounds? It’s animation, guys—go crazy! (Or superimpose rotoscoped actors over photo-realistic backgrounds...)
It probably would’ve been cheaper to shoot the flick in 16mm B&W, and then the film would’ve had an intrinsic sleaziness simply from the graininess of the footage when it was blown up to 35mm.

I don’t like the film of A Scanner Darkly because it never comes close to the realm of the fantastic-outrageous like it should.
There’s a literalism to the roto-animation that’s maddening—especially after we see the crazy-quilt wonder of the “scramble suit” (it “scrambles” your facial characteristics by mixing them with hundreds of other faces—at one point in the film, the late, great Phil Dick even makes an cameo as one of the suit’s “faces,” a very nice touch),
why go through the trouble of animating a boring suburban living room when an artist could create a much better background?
What’s the point of making an animated film when it will look exactly like its source footage?

Y’know, just stick to the novel of A Scanner Darkly
I think this film is impressive to those who’ve never drank deep from the pool of pop-counter-underground culture, people who’ve never read any PKD beyond what Jonathan Lethem recommended in The New Yorker, or seen an early Ralph Bakshi film where dope-psychosis hallucination-animation was commonplace, or did something precisely because it was “bad for them.” Like try Substance D.

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