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A Scanner Darkly
Savant Blu-ray Review

A Scanner Darkly
Warner Home Video
2006 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 100 min. / Street Date September 7, 2010 / 24.98
Starring Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Winona Ryder, Woody Harrelson, Rory Cochrane.
Shane F. Kelly
Heads of animation Jason Archer, Bob Sabiston
Original Music Graham Reynolds
Written by Richard Linklater from the novel by Philip K. Dick
Produced by Tommy Pallotta, Jonah Smith, Erwin Stoff, Anne Walker-McBay, Palmer West
Directed by Richard Linklater

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

An individualistic figure among science fiction writers, Philip K. Dick spent the last ten years of his life fighting the effects of drugs -- not addiction per se, but an altered personality that turned him into a self-avowed paranoid. His ability to write was stopped cold for several years, and after a few more classic novels, his work turned inward to express experiences and revelations that can only be attributed to an expanded consciousness -- or a deranged one.

The book that most directly dealt with his drug problems is A Scanner Darkly, an account of the delirium-induced paranoid fantasies he shared with some housemates in the early 1970s. Realizing that he could only sell fiction with a "science-fiction" handle, Dick set his story "a few years in the future" and reshaped it with a few futuristic angles. The book is painfully autobiographical: like its hero, Dick lives on in a house after his family has left him over his drug habit, and takes in fellow disaffected drug users.

Movies based on Philip K. Dick novels tend to drop his more exotic ideas and add space-opera hardware and action scenes; a halfway sensible plan considering that most of what's precious in a Dick book are usually abstract concepts. Film projects don't seem to happen for the staggeringly original UBIK or The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, even though special effects are now capable of creating the weird worlds necessary to make them work. Dick's fabulously original, award-winning book The Man in the High Castle is also a filmic no-show, perhaps because nobody believes the public can be interested in an alternate-future WW2 tale.

I avoided seeing A Scanner Darkly first run because I hadn't been pleased with the animation technique Richard Linklater used on his 2001 Waking Life. The method of simply rotoscoping (albeit with computer assistance) over videotaped live-action seemed as much a cheat as when Ralph Bakshi used it as a quickie shortcut in his animated 70s films. All I saw in Waking Life were pretentious, tiresome speeches hyped with these instant-anime visual effects. I didn't get it.

Much to my surprise, the semi-abstraction of the digitally assisted roto work actually abets A Scanner Darkly's attempt to recreate Philip K. Dick's nervous mood of drug-induced insecurity. Under the influence of "Substance D" Bob Arctor can never be sure if what he sees is 'real' or warped by a brain malfunction. The shifting shapes of objects, their lack of stability, and the 'sketchy' look of the characters seem wickedly appropriate for this particular movie.

Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) is living a double life and doesn't even know it. He and his unemployed slob roommates James Barris (Robert Downey Jr.) and Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson) are into illegal drugs, especially the mind-damaging Substance D. They live in a constant funk of paranoia, wondering if the cops are monitoring them, or if they are being framed by acquaintances or even each other. The insultingly superior Barris constantly floats his fantasies as if they were real, and pulls off malicious tricks like booby-trapping Bob's house for intruders without telling him. Barris may even be responsible for tampering with the accelerator on Arctor's car. Scatterbrained Ernie (what doper movie could do without Woody Harrelson?) jumps to absurd paranoid conclusions on the flimsiest of evidence, and is easily convinced that the most innocuous events are harbingers of arrest and doom. Occasional visitor Charles Fleck (Rory Cochrane) has lost his grip entirely, and experiences excruciating hallucinations in which bugs crawl over his body.

He's not half wrong, as this is Orange County "seven years in the future" and the War on Drugs has been accelerated to the point that secret police are authorized to effectively "disappear" people that seem under the influence.

Also in Bob Arctor's life is Donna Hawthorne (Winona Ryder), a local dealer in Substance D. Bob is crazy about her. She likes Bob but has developed an aversion to physical contact -- a user herself, she doesn't feel in control and therefore avoids anything that might lead to sex.

The crazy twist in Arctor's life is that he is also an undercover cop assigned to identify Donna Hawthorne's connection. But Bob's Substance D- altered brain has disassociated his two identities, and he doesn't realize what's going on, even as he conceals his Arctor identity from his superiors. This is possible because undercover cops wear "scramble suits", sophisticated disguise coverings that continually change the wearer's appearance, making them unidentifiable, even to each other. To catch Donna in the act, Arctor is ordered to spy on himself: the scanners of the title refer to undetectable video monitoring devices planted in his house.

A Scanner Darkly reflects the reality of the drug users Philip K. Dick knew, including their worst hallucinations. Charlie Fleck frequently stalls into speechlessness. He imagines a waitress removing her clothing; he's strangely accepting of the thousands of green bugs that crawl all over him, and isn't surprised when the ones he traps in a jar 'magically' disappear. These people know that much of what they see is an altered reality. Bob Arctor watches his roommates transform into giant cockroaches, right in front of his eyes. Things like this just happen, and one has to accept them.

The experts say that Substance D destroys connections between the halves of the brain, inducing multiple personalities. Arctor experiences an earlier time in his house when he had a wife and two children. He doesn't know if the vision is a real memory, or an adoption of another person's story. Unable to hide his brain damage from the police doctors, Arctor can't tell a picture of a dog from a picture of a sheep - his reactions are as telltale as those of the programmed robots in Blade Runner that fail tests to ascertain their status as humans.

The movie downplays the science fiction elements, as there are no chases or high-tech set pieces reliant on futuristic gadgets. We're left with a story that relates directly to the Philip K. Dick experience. Even the final twist revelations and ending, with Arctor given a new name and sent for recovery to a sinister "New-Path" prison farm, don't remove the focus from his tragic drug-induced derangement. A Scanner Darkly achieves something the other Dick adaptations don't.

Does the animation style work? Well, real animators don't have much positive to say about the "interpolated rotoscope" process, in which skilled artists turn video frames into comic novel- like visuals. Little new animation is added, and the computer program fills in many of the in-between frames. Just the same, the process would seem much more organic than motion capture, at least the kind of motion capture used in products like Beowulf, admittedly an easy target for comparison.

I think if A Scanner Darkly were a conventional production with isolated special effects here and there, it wouldn't be marketable. Some of the acting (Harrelson and Cochrane) would have to be toned down. As it takes place in fairly dull places - a run-down suburban house, the freeway, a nondescript government office -- the visuals overall might not be very interesting. The scramble suits and the more extreme hallucinations wouldn't seem a part of the same world. Therefore I personally give the film's ersatz-animation look a pass -- in this movie, even ordinary reality looks suspicious, unreliable and more than a bit "off". When a character sprouts insect legs in this particular semi-animated "look", it seems a reasonable extension of the existing reality.

I think what's kept filmmakers from tackling Philip K. Dick's better books is their juggling of incompatible realities - subjective perceptions altered by drugs, memory or the mental influence of super beings. It is difficult for normal cinematography to be both objective and subjective at the same time. Even Alfred Hitchcock had to resort to experimental visuals to tell his viewers that what they see is distorted by a particular person's emotional state.  1 In A Scanner Darkly we can't take anything we see for granted; it all looks screwy to begin with. We are forced to experience the paranoid existence that Dick's words so successfully communicated.

Downey's personality shines through the graphic-novel visuals, while the stylization actually makes Keanu Reeves halfway interesting. A Scanner Darkly makes appropriate use of a technique that didn't impress me in Waking Life. It will probably alienate half of its audience right out of the starting gate, but I call it a worthy adaptation of a particularly tough literary source.

Warner Home Video's Blu-ray of A Scanner Darkly may be a reissue of an earlier Blu-ray. Fans will gravitate immediately to the commentary, which contains remarks, observations and explanations by director Linklater, Keanu Reeves and producer Tommy Palotta, with added input from author Jonathan Lethem and Philip K. Dick's daughter Isa Dick Hackett.

A featurette on the challenge to the movie's animators will be of interest to graphic artists; Linklater apparently hired some experts but also a lot of Austin, Texas artists without much animation experience. After a very short shooting schedule the 18-month postproduction seems to have had organization problems, the way the animation interviewees tell it. A trailer is included as well. I wouldn't like to have the problem of explaining this movie in a short coming-attractions format!

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, A Scanner Darkly Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentary with many contributors, featurette on the animation post production, trailer.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 8, 2010


1. Movies have a hard enough time creating just one "believable" reality. Film isn't very good at presenting conflicting realities simultaneously. Remember, even Hitchcock never fully conquered the 'ambiguous testimony' issues in his movies Stage Fright and I Confess. Each of those films presents subjective-testimony flashbacks that turn out to be a lie, or distorted by romantic notions. To Hitchcock's dismay his audience missed the visual cues, perceived the subjective scenes as normal movie reality, and either felt cheated or patronized. Today we have movie game movies like Inception and many viewers are quick to decipher visual inconsistencies. But putting an audience into a 'solve the puzzle' mode asks for a different kind of involvement than does an ordinary narrative.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2010 Glenn Erickson

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