Blink and you’ll miss it, but buried in the constantly-shifting background of Keanu Reeves’ kitchen is a picture of a head in a box. Under it, a cryptic message reads “Time To Thaw Walt.” It’s a cheeky nod to Walt Disney, whose noggin, according to urban legend, was cryogenically frozen after his death in 1966. The implication? The future is here, so it’s time to defrost Uncle Walt and show him where animation’s gone in the 78 years since Mickey Mouse first bounced onto our screens.
Director Richard Linklater says he had to “battle against the notion that adults don’t want to see animation.” What would A Scanner Darkly lose if it was retold as pure live action? Probably everything. Its migraine-inducing medium is its message, Linklater building on his earlier rotoscoping dream-flick Waking Life to deliver a hallucinatory recreation of Dick’s bi-polar world. It’s a mindfuck that nails the novel’s future-but-now setting (it seems Linklater is no fan of Dubya’s America), the schizophrenia and the obsession with surveillance (the animation captures the strange disconnect of watching CCTV footage – through a scanner darkly). When was the last time a ’toon (apart from maybe Team America: World Police) seemed so thoughtful, so political, so... animated?
A Scanner Darkly is the movie Philip K Dick fans have been waiting for. Other adaptations of his work (Blade Runner, Total Recall) have simply stripped back his books into nothing more than high concept genre flicks. But Linklater’s animated/live action movie perfectly captures the druggie haze of Dick’s vision and its paranoid shifts of terminal identity, as Substance D addict Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) loses the plot, uncertain whether he’s a narc, a stoner or both.
Layering computer-rotoscoping onto live action, A Scanner Darkly’s look mirrors the ebb and flow of a narcotic high. It’s a postcard from the chemical edge, jittery back- and foregrounds skewing reality into surreality. Dick’s 1977 novel may have been set in 1994 but was really a post-’60s report on how the electric kool-aid went sour, drug casualties driven to the brink of sanity.
Linkater digs all that, recruiting a cast of pharmaceutically experienced thesps (Robert Downey Jr, Winona Ryder, Woody Harrelson). They support Reeves’ suitably befuddled performance with a series of paranoid raps around the coffee table about 18-gear bikes, aphids and 66¢ silencers. But it’s the animation that really seals the deal here, Arctor’s “scramble suit” – designed to protect his undercover identity – becoming the perfect visual metaphor for his fractured sense of self.
You can keep your Barnyards, Marty the zebra and the rest of Hollywood’s animated animal crackers. For years grown-ups have been suckered into thinking that cinematic cartoons are nothing more than schmaltzy kiddie fantasies laced with occasional sly winks at the parents and guardians in the audience. A Scanner Darkly not only rewrites the multiplex rulebook of how to make a Philip K Dick movie, it redefines our expectations of what animation can be. It’s a brave new world, people, so yeah, let’s thaw out Walt.
Except, on second thoughts, who needs him?