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6 reviews, 26 user ratings

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Scanner Darkly, A
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Let's Hear It For the Vague Blur!"
5 stars

Generally regarded as one of the truly great American science-fiction writers, the late Philip K. Dick wrote tales that devoted far more time and energy to mind-bending plots and intellectual conceits than elaborate hardware and gripping action scenes. For Hollywood, this has been the cause of endless frustration for anyone attempting to transfer his work from the page to the screen because intellectual conceits generally don’t play as well on film, especially within the confines of a genre where dazzling eye candy is considered to be the norm. The usual solution is to throw out most of the story, except maybe for the initial core idea, dumb the rest of it down for the masses and throw in the kind of elaborate action scenes and futuristic gimmicks that are polar opposites of the mind games that Dick preferred to play.

Over the years, this basic approach has yielded some wildly mixed results–including one masterpiece (“Blade Runner”), a couple of worthy films (“Total Recall” and “Minority Report”) and a couple of clinkers (“Imposter” and “Paycheck”)–but even the best of these films were so wildly dissimilar in style and tone from Dick’s work (especially “Blade Runner” and “Total Recall”) that any trace similarities between them and their source material has always seemed more coincidental than anything else. With the release of Richard Linklater’s “A Scanner Darkly,” a mind-blowing adaptation of Dick’s 1977 cult novel, the wait is finally over. Although visually bold and stylish, this is a film of ideas and, like Dick’s best work, it offers no black-and-white characters, no cut-and-dried storyline and no easy answers to the questions that it raises. As a result, this is not only one of the better films to emerge this year, it is essentially the first screen adaptation of Dick’s work to legitimately capture his unique stylings in cinematic terms and, like his work, it will rattle around in your head long after the end credits have stopped running.

Set seven years in the future, “A Scanner Darkly” posits an America in which the war on drugs has become an even greater failure than it is now and a mysterious new creation named Substance D has created millions of new addicts. Keanu Reeves stars as an undercover cop trying to stem the tide of Substance D by infiltrating the drug underground in an attempt to find out who is behind it. On the streets, he is known as Bob Arctor and spends most of his days hanging out with a small group of junkies–sleazy Barris (Robert Downey Jr.), amiable goofball Luckman (Woody Harrelson), burn-out Freck (Rory Cochrane) and pragmatic dealer Donna (Winona Ryder)–doing little more than getting high while helping to feed each others paranoid delusions for hours on end. Within the confines of the police department, he is known as Fred and, to protect his identity from leaking out to the wrong people, he wears a “scramble suit” (an outfit that renders his features as little more than an indistinct blur of images) that is so effective that not even his superiors are sure of who he really is or what he looks like.

The problem for Fred/Arctor is that he has been doing it for so long and with so few tangible results that the line separating who he is from who he is pretending to be has grown as blurry as his scramble suit visage–early on, we see him giving a speech before a room filled with Orange County businessmen and finds himself unable to once again spout off the same old lines about the war on drugs. This division within becomes even more pronounced when Fred is assigned to begin a detailed surveillance of Arctor, who is suspected of being a major D dealer. This, combined with the paranoia of being out in the field for too long and the personality-splitting effects of the D that he has been ingesting as part of his job, causes Fred/Arctor’s mind to split to such a degree that he is no longer able to distinguish what is real and what is in his mind–even if he succeeds in getting to the bottom of the Substance D epidemic, there is a very good chance that he may simply be too far gone to recognize it.

This is heady and highly challenging material–a twisty tale in which reality and illusion are virtually indistinguishable, every movement is drenched in intense paranoia and the lives of drug addicts are looked at with a certain sympathy instead of outright condemnation–but figuring out a way of bringing it to the screen has eluded those who have tried to adapt it over the years (including the likes of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and director Terry Gilliam). In adapting the material, writer-director Richard Linklater has resisted the urge to indulge in any flights of narrative or visual fancy that would take away from Dick’s central storyline. Instead, he seems to have been struck with how closely Dick, writing in 1977, managed to correctly depict the state of America three decades later–a time when individual personal identity is becoming a thing of the past, personal freedoms are gradually being stripped away by an increasingly intrusive government in the name of fighting “terrorism” and the populace has mostly become too zombified to notice or care–and has chosen to let Dick’s work speak for itself. And while one might strain hard to find a common link between Dick and the man behind such films as “Slacker,” “Dazed and Confused,” “School of Rock” and “Before Sunset,” it turns out that both have a loose, free-flow approach to their respective material that blends together beautifully here. Consider the scene in which Reeves, Downey and Harrelson, all stoned and paranoid, begin to suspect that someone may have entered their house in order to plant drugs as part of a frame-up–the weirdo circular logic that they indulge in while trying to figure out what to do (including contemplating the potential market value of the house in the event of a quick sale) felt so reminiscent of the similarly heady conversations heard in Linklater’s previous films that I was surprised to back to the original novel and discover that the scene, like many in the finished film, was taken almost verbatim from Dick’s original book.

In terms of the visual style, Linklater has filmed “A Scanner Darkly” in the same trippy manner that he approached his lovely 2001 film “Waking Life”–he has laid computer animation atop of the live-action footage that he shot with the actors in order to achieve a look that is best described as a live-action cartoon. Although this is not a process that would improve all films, it is one that works quite well with the basic material. For starters, it makes a concept like the “scramble suit” both practical and affordable while remaining truer to Dick’s original notion of an identity-blurring outfit than your typical triumph of CGI technology. More importantly, the odd look of the film–in which everything is basically “real” while still somehow off–allows viewers to get into the chemically-altered mindsets of the characters in a quick and efficient manner while allowing Linklater to maintain his low-key “Alphaville”-like approach to depicting the not-too-distant future.

Even though they are likely to be overlooked in the discussions of the film’s storyline and visual style, the performances on display here are also strong and contribute quite a lot to the experience of “A Scanner Darkly.” Although the notion of Keanu Reeves playing a guy transformed into the living dead before our eye sounds like a sick joke, he is actually quite good here as an ordinary guy whose entire world is beginning to fracture and disintegrate before his eyes in ways he cannot possibly understand. As the woman who helps him down that path in more ways than one, Winona Ryder turns in her best screen work in quite a while–as one of those who has admired her work since the glory days of “Beetlejuice” and “Heathers,” I can only hope that this marks the beginning of her long-overdue comeback. In smaller roles, Woody Harrelson and Rory Cochrane make brief and funny appearances but the standout performances comes from the always-electrifying Robert Downey Jr., a man whose quicksilver personality changes and ability to rattle off the most bizarre-sounding dialogue as if it was the most natural thing in the world to say (not to mention the psychic weight of his own well-known past struggles with substance abuse) make him the perfect embodiment of Dick’s world gone wrong.

Once upon a time, there used to be a place in the film industry for something like “A Scanner Darkly,” a film that tells a complex story in a visually startling manner without worrying about how such things will go over with mall audiences. Those days are long past, alas, and its release at the height of the summer blockbuster season seems more like a quixotic attempt at counter-programming that is almost doomed to failure. However, there are still some viewers out there who like to be challenged and excited by a film like this and I can only hope that some of them decide to give “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Superman Returns” a temporary pass (since it isn’t like those two are going away anytime soon) in order to sample the more esoteric delights that Linklater has provided. For those who do plan on seeing it, make sure you don’t have any plans immediately afterwards because no matter what you think of it, “A Scanner Darkly” is the kind of film that inspires long, thoughtful and passionate discussions that will probably take up most of the rest of the evening–but that, of course, is another Linklater film altogether.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=14178&reviewer=389
originally posted: 07/07/06 01:18:48
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 South By Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2006 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

2/20/17 morris campbell visionary but very overrated 1 stars
1/09/10 Jeff Wilder Stylistically well-done with some genuine substance 4 stars
11/21/08 Shaun Wallner Thought this was a good film. 3 stars
8/31/08 Scarlet Keanu can act; RDJ steals the film, and thank God he's back 5 stars
5/07/07 hedd Love the book and this was better than expected 4 stars
4/24/07 Dude amazing 5 stars
2/18/07 Mia One word to describe it - bland. Reeves not at his best, & generally poor quality. 1 stars
2/01/07 Indrid Cold Don't see what the point of the rotoscoping is. Most of the plot is pointless too. 3 stars
12/14/06 Donny Martwick Its Awww right. 4 stars
12/08/06 kaz FINALLY in Oz!! Witty,sad & thoughtprovoking.. 5 stars
11/11/06 matt Enjoyable, but difficult to understand 4 stars
10/18/06 Joan Montserrat Very faithful to Dick, a unique movie that makes no cheap concessions and strikes for deep 5 stars
8/20/06 Adam This film was a lot deeper than I suspected. I really enjoyed it. Very true to addiction. 5 stars
8/07/06 gemma depicts overall a druguser comprehension 4 stars
8/05/06 jcjs so fine, mnd blower, go on weed helps too, just splendid right on, wowsa wowsa wowsa 5 stars
7/24/06 Mortis Faithful to PDK, excellent performance by all actors, A must see 5 stars
7/24/06 shane swank more faithful to Dick than others yet not quite there yet. despite flaws its relevant today 4 stars
7/23/06 malcolm interesting for about 20 minutes 2 stars
7/20/06 Agent Sands Much better than Waking Life. Downey and Harrelson are the highlights. 4 stars
7/16/06 Ronald Pottol very glad I saw it 5 stars
7/16/06 ogaga efevberha fantastic and really inspiring 5 stars
7/15/06 zeitgeist FINALLY a good PKD adaptation. Humorous, metaphorical...Brilliant. 5 stars
6/13/06 Kelly Garcia I am a fan of the book. Fantastic adaptation. Smart, funny, timely! 5 stars
6/10/06 San Lamar wait for dvd 3 stars
5/20/06 John Deere It's the 1978 "Lord of the Rings" all over again. Awesome. 5 stars
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  07-Jul-2006 (R)
  DVD: 19-Dec-2006



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