Every year, the SXSW Film Festival has one unannounced screening, something that isn't advertised but that people start whispering about a day or two after the festival begins. This year, the rumors I heard were about A Scanner Darkly. Richard Linklater's adaptation of Philip K. Dick's novel was completed and ready to watch, although the release date had been pushed back to July. But would it play during the festival, and if so, when? Would we have to track down special passes, or would our badges be sufficient? The Paramount had a block of time on the schedule reserved for "TBD" on Wednesday afternoon, and we suspected that would be the time/place if the movie was going to be screened.
I was having lunch near the theater with Blake of Cinema Strikes Back and he suggested we get in line early. At 2:15, the line for the 4 pm rumored screening was barely a line—maybe a dozen people—but we settled down for a long wait. While we waited, we wondered if we would actually get to see A Scanner Darkly, or if this was all an elaborate ruse to draw a crowd for someone else's movie. At about 3 pm, the line finally started to wrap around the side of the theater, and after the previous movie at the Paramount ended, most of those people started to get in line too. The guest list, which took priority over SXSW badges, was rumored to contain as many as 400 people, but the Paramount is a huge theater and we weren't worried. Once I heard about the guest list size, I knew the movie had to be A Scanner Darkly: the local animation crew was enormous, and it seemed like every artist in town was recruited to help. Naturally, the theater was packed, although Linklater himself was unable to attend.
The movie contains more conversation and less action than you might expect from a Philip K. Dick adaptation if you saw Total Recall or Minority Report. The storyline is about an internal struggle, not an external one: Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) is working as an undercover cop and has to spy on his own friends to bust a drug-smuggling operation. In order to be convincing, he ends up hooked on the drugs himself, which may be causing his brain to function improperly. How much longer can he hang on, and how is his possible brain damage affecting what he sees?
A Scanner Darkly is one strange film. I'd like to see it again, not in a festival setting where I have to dash from one theater to another, but with time afterwards to reflect on the film and to let the images soak in. The movie uses the same rotoscoping animation techniques as Linklater's 2001 film Waking Life, but to different effect. Waking Life looked appropriately surreal, but A Scanner Darkly has an edgier, grittier appearance. Some backgrounds and objects remain live-action in sharp contrast to the rotoscoped characters. The lead actors are all recognizable despite being animated: Reeves, Woody Harrelson, and Robert Downey Jr. particularly stand out in appearance. Winona Ryder doesn't look much like herself, but I always think of her as looking like she did in Heathers, so my perception may be off. And after all the controversy about the music, Graham Reynolds' score turns out to fit subtly and perfectly with the unique look of the film. (Reynolds also scored Gretchen, which screened earlier at SXSW.)
Because I live in Austin, it was odd to spot some local streets and buildings through the animation. After all, the movie is supposed to be set in Anaheim in the future. However, it was more amusing than distracting, and if you're not an Austinite you'd never notice.
I'm not sure I actually liked A Scanner Darkly, but it's not meant to be a likeable movie. It is a good movie to discuss afterwards, though. I can't wait until it opens in July and I can drag friends to see it so I can hear what they think.