****/**** Image A+ Sound A- Extras C
starring Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder
screenplay by Richard Linklater, based on the novel by Philip K. Dick
directed by Richard Linklater
by Walter Chaw Our reality has almost outstripped Philip K. Dick's paranoid fantasies, and Richard Linklater's grim A Scanner Darkly is the slipperiest take yet on the war between perception vs. reality in a year that knows United 93. Keanu Reeves, so often woefully miscast, is wonderfully imagined here as a guy in a "scramble suit": his appearance constantly shifting in a kaleidoscope of mismatched parts--the uniform of future-narcs (seven years from now, announce the opening titles) sent undercover to ferret out the dopers and dealers of Substance D. It's a hallucinogen that eventually causes a rift in the individual consciousness (the left hemisphere atrophies and the right tries to compensate) and Reeves' Agent Fred is sent to find out where dealer Donna (Winona Ryder) is getting her shit. But the scramble suits seem mainly used to keep the vice squad's identities from one another instead of their quarry, meaning that Fred goes underground as himself, Robert Arctor, in full grunge, inhabiting his once-cozy suburban nook with tweaked conspiracy theorists Ernie (Woody Harrelson) and Barris (Robert Downey Jr.). Meaning, too, that Fred is asked to spy on Arctor, and that Barris, in a pair of hilarious scenes, informs on Arctor to Arctor. It's not the labyrinthine audacity of Dick's delusions that so enthrals, but rather the mendacity of them. What's complicated about A Scanner Darkly isn't the compression of identity or the various plots to which its characters imagine themselves hero and victim, but the idea that reality conforms itself to belief--that because life has stopped making sense to you, life has stopped making sense, period.
Animated frame-by-frame using the same rotoscoping process Linklater employed in Waking Life, A Scanner Darkly resembles nothing so much as a three-dimensional image frozen and sliced into different, shifting planes. Every second is in motion--sort of a wiggle--that causes faces to slide against themselves and gnash while the characters are talking. It's a mesmerizing technique that has the effect of furthering the film's theme of disconnection. Oppositional ideas in conflict with one another is, after all, the foundation upon which A Scanner Darkly and its perception-splitting drug is built. A moment where Arctor looks at his lover post-coitus to see her transformed, replicated later as Agent Fred replays the same moment of discovery (sometimes from angles which we know aren't subject to hidden cameras (i.e., the scanners of the film's title)), describes the intimacy of his reality's violation. Because we're watching a live-action feature that's been animated and then watching our protagonist watching a video that he's secretly taken of himself, the seed of a sneaking suspicion begins to creep in that the drug-induced madness of Fred/Arctor that allows him to separate what he knows from what he sees is of the very same madness the film induces in the audience. I know that this is Keanu Reeves and a cast of indie luminaries in a film directed by Richard Linklater--and then I know that it's an animated adaptation of an engagingly impenetrable book by Philip K. Dick. And still I'm at times incapable of distinguishing its contortions from the truths littering my own philosophy. What does it mean to take art to heart?
Illegal, aggressive surveillance threatens to open A Scanner Darkly to an interpretation as an attack on our beloved domestic policy of dirty tricks, but look beyond that to a more wide-reaching indictment of the way we accept information and are fed paranoia, encouraged to trust the diseased skylarks of our drugged minds. If we can imagine it for you, it's true (echoes of Dick's short story, "We Can Remember It For You, Wholesale", which became Total Recall), thus this mass media televisual dystopia of ours becomes the angry fix for our atrophied left hemispheres. Day-by-day, we're less capable of reason and more accepting of garbage like Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest as entertainment; the appetite for something bigger, louder, and more three-dimensional in our experiential tourism has become insatiable. The lingering indications of our addiction to facility is this inability to connect with one another (Donna rejects physical contact: "I have to be careful because I do so much coke"), to engage in the essential human survival pastimes of fucking and communicating danger--until at the end what's left on the table are suspicion, loneliness, and misdirected rage at anything with the temerity to be difficult to understand. A Scanner Darkly is, like the best science-fiction, about you plus me and the time ticking away on the remainder. It says something that I found the film to be almost Pollyannaish when all's said and done: Linklater and Dick seem to hope that a spark of awareness awaits us on the other side of our self-induced doping. But maybe I see too many movies. Originally published July 14, 2006
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Warner's Blu-ray release of A Scanner Darkly improves on the DVD in the obvious ways but oddly drops the featurette "One Summer in Austin: The Story of Filming A Scanner Darkly". I wouldn't call that a deal-breaker, but by the same token I wouldn't call the film's BD presentation so mind-blowing that it makes up the difference. There's a ceiling on how good the innately well-defined animation can look, and while this 1.78:1, 1080p transfer hits it, the SD version threatened to when it wasn't riddled with compression artifacts. Curiously, the audio hasn't been upgraded to lossless from DD 5.1, but a slightly higher bitrate adds muscle to a soothingly ambient mix. The attendant feature-length commentary teaming writer-director Richard Linklater, star Keanu Reeves, producer Tommy Pallotta, Philip K. Dick authority Jonathan Lethem, and Dick's daughter Isa Dick Hackett is unfortunately a bust: muddy-sounding, unmoderated, and containing a shocking amount of dead air for so many pedigreed individuals, its brightest spots are the contributions from Hackett, who sets the record straight on the conditions under which her father wrote A Scanner Darkly (he was clean and sober the whole time) amidst a fairly candid reminiscence of his drug use and paranoia. But the discussion often feels half-focused, like a strictly-social gathering of these people might.
Rounding out the supplements are the film's trailer (480p/16x9-enhanced) and the windowboxed "The Weight of the Line: Animation Tales" (21 mins.), a making-of that loses points for tiptoeing around much post-production strife. Although the animators are open about the rotoscoping process taking over a year instead of the anticipated six months, the piece leaves out contributing factors like false starts and reorganizations in the chain of command. Still, it's kind of interesting to learn that a woman--from all appearances, one of the few on staff--was assigned to rotoscope Winona Ryder (none of the men, it's implied, could do it without becoming sexually excited), and one gains appreciation for the intensive labour involved in the picture's creation. Too, a lot of the actors talk of hamming it up to look more interesting in cartoon form, though only Robert Downey, Jr. admits to being told to tone it down. Originally published: October 4, 2010.