So Many Bugs: Initial thoughts on “A Scanner Darkly”

The first scene opens with a man covered in a swarm of insects. He tries in vain to get them off, even spraying himself with a generic bug spray, but to no avail. He even discovers the green menace on his dog. His friend, over the phone, orders him to catch a few of the insects in a jar, and bring them to him for further investigation. Eventually, it turns out that the insects were a hallucination, but just the idea of being swarmed in such a fashion makes me feel physically uncomfortable. I’m made to squirm in my seat, itching all over, almost in sympathy with the man on the screen.

The rest of the film is just as uncomfortable, and I loved every minute.

Linklater’s take on Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly has been sitting on my desk for weeks now. With the house empty and my work done for the night, I took my opportunity to watch it last night, and was impressed on several points.

Now, I’ve never read the book (it’s been on my to do list for years), but I’ve been a fan of Phillip K. Dick’s works since I first read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Aside from this, Linklater’s my current indie film crush (Slacker rocked my world, and even inspired some of my current project), so right off the bat I figured I’d be enjoying this film.

And it was great. It carried a lot of Dick’s trademark storytelling tricks, with hidden clues thrown around everywhere and a sweet twist of an ending. Couple this with Linklater’s junk culture imagery, and you get this modern day sci-fi feel which gives you the impression that this story could be happening right now (as opposed to “seven years from now” as the introduction suggests).

But then there was the rotoscoping, which threw me right out of whack. The effect, achieved literally by drawing onto film strips, creates a cartoon-ish, dreamlike feel, immediately contrasting with the accessibility of the film brought on my it’s modern setting. Because of this effect, the film feels both accessible and alienating at the same time, a trademark of a lot of Linklater’s more artistic films.

I feel the film was probably made better, for me at least, by this sense of unease that surrounded it. From the swarm of bugs in the opening scene, to creatures from between dimensions appearing to recite your sins, you’re not entirely sure how much of the film you’re supposed to take seriously, or relate to in any way. Do you sympathise with Robert Arctor, or is he “too weird to live, too rare to die” as Thompson would say?

But that’s the beauty of Linklater’s work. You get to make that choice yourself.

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