I don’t know what it says about A Scanner Darkly that I kept thinking about Keanu Reeves-related jokes while watching it (“What’s the best way to make Keanu Reeves look animated?”). The technique used in this film is rotoscoping, wherein scenes are first shot in the conventional way, with real actors in real settings, and then handed over to animators who trace over the material, frame by frame. (I first saw the technique in the music video of A-Ha’s “Take on Me” in the mid-1980s.) What results is an eerie twilight zone between animation and live-action where you're never quite sure where an actor's facial expressions end and the illustrator's imagination takes over, and for a performer of Reeves’ limitations this is a godsend. The film is full of reaction shots – close-ups of Reeves taking in information and mulling over it, a thoughtful look in his eyes – and I have to think that the animation made these moments more effective than they would have been with the blank-expressioned actor doing it entirely on his own.
Of course, it’s too much to suggest that this is the reason why the film was made this way. The twilight effect created by rotoscoping is particularly well-suited to a movie version of a Philip K Dick novel, for Dick – one of the true visionaries of the last century – specialised in creating hallucinatory worlds where dream and reality merge into each other. (For a good example of this, read The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, one of the most thrillingly unsettling books ever written.) I haven’t read A Scanner Darkly, but the film version does just about enough to suggest that rotoscoping is an appropriate technique for this story.
The setting is a dystopian world where an illegal drug called Substance D has turned a large part of the population into walking zombies. Droopy-eyed Bob Arctor (Reeves) doubles up as an undercover agent for the police, spying on the activities of his junkie friends, including his girlfriend Donna (Winona Ryder). But Arctor’s own use of Substance D starts to cause serious communication problems between his left and right brain, which makes it difficult for him to distinguish between his two identities. Adding to the general air of distrust and paranoia is the fact that Arctor and his police contact both wear shape-shifting outfits that make it impossible for either of them to know the other’s identity. (These outfits, incidentally, are another reason why it would have been very difficult to film this story in pure live-action.)
By its very nature any rotoscoped film will seem a little self-indulgent, and it's possible to argue that the technology – which has the viewer straining to catch little visual details in each scene, and looking closely for the shifts in angles that make the image look more like live-action – can distract from the narrative; I lost the plot thread/missed dialogue a couple of times and had to rewind. I can’t unqualifiedly endorse A Scanner Darkly – it was a bit too soporific for my liking (or at least my liking at the time I saw it) and the animation not consistently compelling – but at its best it creates a rich shadow world, with some morbidly funny scenes, and does some justice to a multi-layered story. I just hope this isn’t what all films of the future are going to look like, because then all actors could turn out to be Keanu Reeves clones.