A Scanner Darkly

December 19th, 2006 Film, Film Reviews, Xpress

Written and directed by Richard Linklater

Starring Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr, Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder.

What do Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Cruise, Ben Affleck and Harrison Ford have in common? They’ve all been in movies cult sci-fi author Philip K Dick would have hated.

Why should the abovementioned stars/governors care? Well, they’ve all been in films that have strip-mined the best ideas from Dick’s work and made them into the sort of action/adventure spectacle that prompted Dick to once quip that you’d have to kill him and sit him in his car with a smile painted on his face to get him to go near Hollywood.

The big studios have never been shy about transplanting the best ideas from literature into movies, but it’s almost as if they’ve gone out of their way to turn Dick’s stories into uninspiring dross.

For the first time, his work has the chance to be faithfully rendered on screen, by longtime indie auteur Richard Linklater. Based on Dick’s own experiences with identity-skewering drugs, A Scanner Darkly deals (as most of his work does) with themes that are eerily more pertinent today, years after its publication. There was no Internet, no identity theft and no mainstream concerns about privacy in 1977 when Darkly was published, yet the tale could hardly be set in a more fitting time than suburban Los Angeles seven years hence.

Bob Arctor (Reeves) is an undercover narc fighting the unwinnable war against Substance D, the latest drug scourge tipped to destroy society as we know it. In trying to navigate his way up the supply chain, Arctor has become hopelessly addicted himself, and when not on duty, hangs around his run down house with his no hoper friends, pothead Ernie (Harrelson) and motor mouthed Barris (Downey Jr).

Arctor reports to his superior officer and interrogates witnesses like any cop, but none of his colleagues ever see him — or each other. They spend their whole time on duty clad in scramble suits, body coverings that project an endless procession of face and body parts to keep their true identity secret from everyone around them.

It’s this faceless theme that forms the subtext of A Scanner Darkly when Substance D starts to take its toll on Bob, resulting in the two hemispheres of his brain slowly separating and taking on independent lives of their own. His superiors order him to track a probable user and dealer, with no idea they send him out to spy on himself.

As police psychologists try to restore Bob’s mind, he becomes increasingly unhinged. It also doesn’t help that his housemate and ‘friend’ Barris is trying to feed him to the sharks and save his own skin by giving the police everything he can collect on Arctor (with no idea he’s talking to the guy he’s trying to get in trouble).

Even worse, Bob’s girlfriend Donna (Ryder) is so drug-addled herself she can’t stand to be physically touched, further disconnecting Bob from his life in the real world but destined to play a much larger part in his fate than he (or us) can imagine. And behind them all, the mysterious, far reaching rehabilitation organisation New Path is a seemingly benevolent but somehow sinister presence across the social landscape.

The film ends with a political thriller aspect that isn’t explored and might frustrate some viewers, but it’s not really the point of the story. By then a much more important aspect of A Scanner Darkly will have made an impression on you.

Using the rotoscope-animation technique that bought us his 2001 experimental mind-trip Waking Life, A Scanner Darkly looks incredible. You could hardly imagine a better way to present a slightly unreal world than with the unreal facade of animation. Where the style in Waking Life ranged from highly detailed to flatly simplistic between one scene to the next, A Scanner Darkly is real to the point where you sometimes forget you’re watching a cartoon as you immerse yourself in the story.

Moving around real world rooms and 3D landscapes doesn’t quite gel, reminding you every now and then of the hyper-reality of what you’re watching, but filming the live cast and then animating over the top of the footage achieves the look computer animators consider the Holy Grail of human movement we’re supposedly going to see when they perfect sythespians.

Reeves is actually more suited to this sort of work than he is the mainstream heroics of The Matrix. He simply doesn’t have the prowess to be the hero and carry a whole movie but he’s ably supported by a great cast as well as Linklater’s dialogue and technique.

A Scanner Darkly is a fantastic melding of a good idea with an equally intriguing execution, so the jury’s out on whether Dick or Linklater is the cleverer craftsman. But, like a modern van Gogh, the former is finally getting the representation he deserves on screen almost 25 years after his death.

And let’s not forget the wisdom of Robert Downey Jr’s agent; who’d have thought of him playing a fast-talking, neurotic drug addict?


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