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A Scanner Darkly (A Movie Review)


Starring Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder, Rory Cochrane, Mitch Baker, Sean Allen, Cliff Haby, Steven Chester Prince, Natasha Velez, Mark Turner, Chamblee Ferguson and Angela Rawna.

Screenplay by Richard Linklater.

Directed by Richard Linklater.

Distributed by Warner Independent Pictures. 100 minutes. Rated R.

Sci-fi author Philip K. Dick has been dead for over 20 years, but in the time since his death an unusual amount of his writing has been made into films. There was Blade Runner (based on his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), Total Recall (based on the story "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale"), Minority Report, Impostor, Paycheck, Screamers (based on the story "Second Variety") and the French film Confessions d'un Barjo (based on the story "Confessions of a Crap Artist.")

Truth is, I've never really read much of Dick's work. I did start one of his books (honestly, I can't even remember which one) back during my short-lived junior high school sci-fi nerd period, but I didn't make it far before giving up. I've also never been a huge fan of the films made from his work. Minority Report and Blade Runner are as close as I can get to liking one, and I couldn't truly say I loved either of those.

The novel A Scanner Darkly is considered to be an anomaly even for Dick, though. Supposedly one of his more personal tales, with its harrowing and accurate drug passages, the novel was only vaguely science fiction (the movie is set seven years in the future and much of the scenery and props seem either current or retro.).

Writer and director Richard Linklater (School of Rock, Before Sunset, Dazed and Confused) is a long-time fan of the novel and he has now brought it to vivid life in his animated technique that he calls interpolated rotoscoping. The process is essentially live action footage, which is painstakingly animated over, giving the whole thing a fluid, realistic feel, and yet a creeping unease and shifting of reality.

The story focuses on four junkies sharing a home in Orange County, California in the early 2010s. At this point, the government has merged drug enforcement with homeland security and places policemen in with junkies to try and halt a new super drug known as Substance D. The junkies are Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) a laid-back loser and owner of the house where they all crash. Arctor is in love with Donna (Winona Ryder), but her deepening drug dependence seems to make sex repugnant to her. Jim Barris (Robert Downey, Jr.) is a fast-talking, know-it-all dealer. Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson) is a good natured but slightly dumb addict. Their friend Fleck (Rory Cochrane) who is already completely addled by the drug, pops in from time to time as he becomes increasingly unstable. At least one of the junkies is an undercover cop. However, even the cop is not 100% sure of who he is and what he is doing.

Once in the house, not all that much happens, honestly. People take drugs. Hallucinate. They take a drive. Their car breaks down. Someone may or may not have stolen a bike. Take more drugs. More hallucination. A little unsatisfying sex. Serious, deep paranoia. The narc spies on the others. One of the junkies tries to rat others out. They fight. They take more drugs. Hallucinate yet more. Eventually they all lose their minds to differing degrees. All the while you get more and more glimpses into the rotten bureaucracy that is turning them all into rats in a maze.

The story is more of a character piece than a plot-driven force. The characters are interesting and watching them all totally unravel has a certain voyeuristic interest. The themes of personal freedoms, government spying, and corporate corruption are terribly trenchant at this point in history.

Which brings us to the animation. In theory I love the fact that Linklater is trying to save legitimate animation from the soulless computerized animation which has taken over since Toy Story became a smash hit ten years ago. This special style of animation has a certain legitimacy to the story as well, making this adult comic seem like something from the pages of Heavy Metal magazine in the 80s.

However, just like Linklater's Waking Life and the recent series of Charles Schwab commercials made in the same style, this realism is both a blessing and a curse. The characters move like real actors because they are real actors who have been painted over. The problem is, much of the time while you are watching you can't help but wonder what's the point? Why bother animating this stuff if you are going to play it so close to the vest? I figured maybe it would make sense with a story by classic sci-fi author Philip Dick. There might be lots of strange and wonderful visions that would benefit from the freedom of a painter's brush. However, the story only takes place a few years in the future. There are only a few things in this story (a multi-eyed alien, humans mutating into bugs, a special police suit which scrambles hundreds of possible identities at the same time...) that could not have just as easily been done with live action and a bit of SFX.

A Scanner Darkly is an easy film to respect. I can see it, deservedly so, becoming a cult phenomenon. However, just like most of the work of Philip K. Dick, it is a tougher film to enjoy. It has some brilliant ideas and some clever filmmaking, but it is so relentlessly downbeat and determinedly quirky that I think only a very select fraction of the audience will embrace it. (7/06)

Ken Sharp

Copyright ©2006 All rights reserved. Posted: July 7, 2006.


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