"What does a scanner see? Into the head? Down into the heart? Does it see into me, into us? Clearly or darkly? I hope it sees clearly, because I can't any longer see into myself. I see only murk. I hope for everyone's sake the scanners do better. Because if the scanner sees only darkly, the way I do, then I'm cursed and cursed again. I'll only wind up dead this way, knowing very little, and getting that little fragment wrong too."
A Scanner Darkly, based on the novel by Philip K. Dick, is the darkest, funniest, most tragic, most surreal, most not sci-fi and most sci-fi film of 2006. It centers around Bob Arcter (Keanu Reeves), a man hopelessly addicted to Substance D, a mind-destroying drug in the near future. He lives with Barris (Robert Downey Jr.) and Luckman (Woody Harrelson), and dates Donna (Winona Ryder). They're all drug addicts, and they all know it. What they don't know is that Bob is actually an undercover narcotics agent for the Orange County Police Department. He routinely steps into a Scramble Suit, a thin membrane which overlaps images of other people so Bob cannot be identified, and goes by the name of Fred as he reports on the goings on at his house. Since his identity is to remain anonymous, he has to report on himself as well. Unfortunately, Substance D has certain side effects, one of which includes the splitting of personalities. Soon Fred doesn't know that Arcter is inside his Scramble Suit, and Arcter knows he's being watched, but he doesn't know he's the one doing the watching.
Philip K. Dick lived in Berkeley during the height of the counter culture movement. He lived through the Nixon years, where informants infiltrated political groups and other "subversive" collectives. Dick, high on amphetamines, was certain he was under surveillance (and he might have been partially correct). A Scanner Darkly is about his experiences, and about his friends. The film and the book both end with a coda listing people Dick knew who were permanently damaged or killed by the drugs they took. As you can see, the book was very personal to Dick, and one would imagine that it would be more difficult to adapt than some of his earlier, more purely science fiction works.
But then one hasn't taken into account the creative brilliance of Richard Linklater. The director, who started his career with Slacker and had a massive hit with the Jack Black comedy School of Rock, has always been unpredictable, sending out feelers in many directions at once. Look at some of his experiments, including Tape, Before Sunrise, and Waking Life, and you'll see a director not afraid to take chances, even if it means failure. And I have to point most heavily to Waking Life, Linklater's rotoscoped ode to the sort of mindless rambling that you'd find in a college freshman philosophy 101 course. Waking Life is the definition of cinematic masturbation, having no point while vainly trying to hoodwink the audience into thinking it unveils deep secrets. However, the film did allow Linklater to refine the art of rotoscoping, which is where someone shoots live action material and then has animators draw over the scenes to make them look animated. It's not a new technique, but it's usually confined to small portions of a movie. Linklater used it for an entire feature in Waking Life and did so again for A Scanner Darkly.
It's this rotoscoping that allows Linklater to faithfully bring Dick's harrowing story to the screen. The novel reads like a paranoiac acid trip, and the rotoscoping does a perfect job of separating the film from every day reality. Even the simplest shots have items subtly changing shape and size, and everything has an unreal look to it. Of course, this technique allows for the seamless integration of the Scramble Suits, which is easily the visual high point of the film. Linklater smartly does not overuse the rotoscoping to make each scene filled with cartoonish hallucinations. Instead, he lets the story unfold in a disjointed manner, reflecting the mindset of someone who would be taking Substance D. The film is tied together by Bob Arcter, whose experiences inform the rest of the film.
Keanu Reeves gets a lot of flak as an actor, but the truth is that without him, this film would not have been made. He spent a long time with the script and with Linklater, learning who Arcter is and what makes him tick. He does an admirable job carrying the picture, slowly disintegrating into two different personalities. The real highlight, though, is Robert Downey Jr. as Barris. Downey disappears into Barris, using him to indulge in the craziest mannerisms possible. He's absolutely hilarious and also contains an edge of menace. The rest of the cast fill things in nicely, but the real core of the movie is the interplay between Reeves and Downey.
When asked about A Scanner Darkly Philip K. Dick commented that he isn't a character in the novel, he's the novel itself. And his spirit definitely inhabits the movie, as well. A Scanner Darkly is easily the most faithful Dick film adaptation to date. Most screenwriters take an idea or two from Dick and use them as a springboard for their own thoughts. And in the case of a work like Blade Runner, that worked. But Linklater stayed true to the source material, giving the whole piece that extra resonance for those familiar with Dick's work. It also shows the genius of Dick's writing. A Scanner Darkly is tough and essential viewing.
The HD DVD:
Warner Bros. Home Entertainment presents A Scanner Darkly in a 1080p 1.85:1 VC-1 encode. Being a brand new film, A Scanner Darkly looks predictably excellent. Of course, due to the rotoscoping, the film is essentially animation, which large swaths of uninterrupted color and low detail. This makes the encoding process so much easier (also why upconverted SD animation can look almost as good as the same material in true HD), but just because it's easy to make the movie look good doesn't mean that we should be any less appreciative when it does. The transfer ably recreates the way the movie looked in the theater, with deep black lines and subtly shifting imagery. I couldn't find any compression artifacts, even when I was scouring the screen, which was quite often considering how beautiful this film is.
You'd think that for a new release, Warner would have been able to provide a lossless Dolby TrueHD track. Sadly, we only get a Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 track. To be honest, the film is almost entirely all dialogue (with the exception of a pair of aurally amplified gunshots and some car trouble), so perhaps a lossless track wouldn't have done much, anyway. What we do have works. There's not much surround action going on after the opening, but dialogue is clear and intelligible.
- Commentary with Writer/Director Richard Linklater, Actor Keanu Reeves, Producer Tommy Pallotta, Author Jonathan Lethem and Philip K. Dick's daughter Isa Dick-Hackett: Ah, the lost art of the group commentary. Linklater plays ringleader to a motley assortment of people connected with the film or Philip K.Dick for an absorbing discussion of the movie, the book, and anything else they think to talk about. The majority of the commentary actually goes to psychology. The psychology of the story, of its characters, of its author. There's a lot of talk about Philip K. Dick, with personal remembrances by his daughter. Keanu Reeves spends most of his time talking about the larger themes in the film, and producer Tommy Pallotta mostly stays quiet. Thoroughly engrossing, the only problem with the track is that it's mixed rather low, so it's easy to lost track of what they're saying as the film bleeds in.
- One Summer In Austin: The Filming Of A Scanner Darkly: A twenty minute look at the physical filming of the picture. We get an interesting mix of comments from various participants, including the main actors, Linklater, Dick-Hackett and others. Definitely not studio fluff, and the only place to see any unaltered footage from the picture.
- The Weight of the Line: Animation Tales: A fascinating featurette on the rotoscoping process. Numerous interviews with the animators make this piece very interesting, and worth catching.
- Rounding things out is the theatrical trailer.
A Scanner Darkly is the most faithful adaptation of a Philip K. Dick novel to date. That alone makes the film worth seeing. But it also helps that it's a really strong piece, with some great performances and a cinematic trick that never wears out its welcome. The HD DVD looks fantastic and has a strong set of supplements that make this one Highly Recommended.
Daniel Hirshleifer is the High Definition Editor for DVD Talk.