It really saddens me to know that this movie was technically a flop. I remember seeing it in theaters when it came out and it was really confusing, but I was still in high school at the time. Re-watching it this week has reminded me just how good this movie is and how unfortunate it is that it didn’t get more attention. There are so many things at work here (animation, literary themes, cinematography, etc) that make this film good that did not get the full attention they deserve.
The first thing you notice about this film, of course, is the animation. The use of cell-shading on live footage gives this film a surreal feeling that matches the storyline perfectly. The animation makes the movie feel like a comic book, while at the same time revealing the harsh truth about the real world. This helps the story significantly, as Bob (Keanu Reeves) spends a large portion of the movie questioning what is real, whether he is a good person in a bad world or if the bad world has made him bad, etc.
By giving the viewer something to recognize as real while altering it to seem drawn on or “fake”, the viewer is eased into the mindset that this is just a story, while at the same time realizing the eeriness that everything is just a bit too familiar. Another reason this type of animation works so well is simply due to the nature of the scramble suit and the hallucinations experienced by some of the characters. While these could be pulled off in live-action using CGI, they would not have blended in as well. By using the cell-shaded animation over live-action, the hallucinations and the scramble suits seem just as real as the characters themselves.
My favorite thing about this film is not so much the plot itself, but the themes that are at play within the story. There are of course the “drugs are bad, corporations are bad, government is bad” overtones, but I’ll get to that in a minute. What I really love about this film is the warning against societal extremes. At one point, Bob has a flashback to his life before living with Barris and Luckman where he remembers having two daughters and a wife, showing the house as a clean and picture-perfect suburban setting. By describing his realization that he hated his life and showing the house as the run down drug-house it is now, it becomes clear that Bob traded one extreme for another. He traded being the poster boy perfect suburban father for being the poster boy drug addict. Later in the film, he complains again about how messed up the house is and how there should be a family there. Bob’s failure to see past the extremes society pigeonholes us into is a large part of what causes his unhappiness. He does not fit either stereotypical role very well, nor is he happy trying to do so, but can’t seem to decide what would really make him happy.
Now of course, we go back to the “drugs are bad, corporations are bad, government is bad” overtones. Drugs are bad, as shown in this film, because it is too easy to get addicted and you become unable to control yourself. That seems fairly straight-forward, and it is at least one of the main intentions by Philip K. Dick (author of the novel this film is based on). This is made obvious by just how quickly Substance D takes over Bob’s life, but also by the epilogue shown just before the credits, listing casualties of drug abuse and a hope for a better future.
Government and corporations are bad in this film for pretty obvious reasons. The drug epidemic is so pervasive that the government has absolutely no idea how to stop it, and thus they have taken to spying on their citizens to try to catch anyone even remotely interested in Substance D. This is what makes Bob end up getting addicted in the first place, as he is assigned under cover to spy on himself. The corporations are bad because the organization that claims to help keep Substance D off the streets and treats people who are addicted to Substance D is actually the same group that is putting the drug on the market in the first place. I kind of like to think of it in the same terms as McDonald’s being a major supporter of the Olympics despite their food being ridiculously unhealthy. They understand the problem, they acknowledge the problem, but they don’t actually help stop the problem because it would be bad for business.
As for the actual plot, this movie is extremely depressing. Donna turning out to be an undercover officer named Audrey who plants Bob in these situations to get him checked into New Path’s rehab center on purpose is heartbreaking. The fact that the society has gotten so bad that sacrificing someone for the sake of possibly exposing New Path is the only way to even attempt solving the problem just goes to show how dire the situation really is. It reveals that the corporation pretty much runs the society, leaving the government and law enforcement practically defenseless.
While I regretfully can’t say I’ve read the book, this movie makes me want to run out and find a copy immediately. I think this story kept a lot of deep literary themes that the book is very likely to have, and that is unusual for film these days. If anyone reading this has read the book, leave a comment and let me know what you think of this interpretation. Anyway, that’s all for now and I hope this harsh view of our society doesn’t spoil your weekend!