Warner Bros. // 2006 // 100 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Kent Dixon (Retired) // September 27th, 2010
Fred (Keanu Reeves, The Day the Earth Stood Still): What does a scanner see? Into the head? Into the heart? Does it see into me? Clearly? Or darkly?
What do you get when you take a digital film about the drug culture with a state-of-the-art, rotoscope animation process? Not Disney, that's for sure!
A semi-autobiographical adaptation of Philip K. Dick's novel of the same name, A Scanner Darkly is a unique and stunning animated film set in the not-too-distant future where America has lost the war on drugs, and things are not okay.
My esteemed Verdict review colleagues Geoffrey Miller, Dennis Prince, and Dave Ryan may have all retired from the bench now, but before they left, they presented detailed reviews of A Scanner Darkly on DVD, HD-DVD and Blu-ray. Rather than revisit well-traveled ground, I recommend you visit their reviews for the full picture of the film from the perspective of three gents who knew it well. For my review, you'll be getting the fresh, first impressions of someone who has never seen it before this review. Yes, seriously.
"Trippy." I can honestly say that I have never used that word before this review, but there's just no other one that suits A Scanner Darkly better than that. The film is set just a short time in the future and follows law enforcement officer Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves, The Matrix), known only as "Fred" by his colleagues on the force, as he works to infiltrate and uncover a drug ring that deals with a street drug known as Substance D. The lines grow increasingly blurred for Arctor as he becomes addicted to "D" himself and he ultimately loses the distinction between himself as the drug dealer and addict and himself as an undercover detective. When the credits rolled, I found it hard to pin the film down in my mind; was it merely about the drug subculture and an analogy for our own society's war on drugs, a character study of how erratic the behavior of addicts can become, or is it merely author Philip K. Dick's personal story of his own drug experiences during the '60s? It's likely all of those and probably more, depending on the individual experiences and perspective of each viewer.
If, like me, you've never seen the film, you will be blown away by it, especially on Blu-ray. The film is visually stunning, capturing your attention as you watch what can best be described as a moving painting. The colors are vibrant and the bizarrely stylized image is mesmerizing throughout. The 5.1 audio mix is equally impressive, with balanced use of the surround channels to build atmosphere and support composer Graham Reynolds' bizarre soundtrack and the voice efforts of Reeves and his co-stars (Winona Ryder, Robert Downey, Jr., and Woody Harrelson).
Viewers will find some clarity by rewatching the feature-length commentary track with Reeves, director Richard Linklater, producer Tommy Pallotta, author Jonathan Lethem and Philip K. Dick's daughter Isa Dick-Hackett. The track is mostly screen-specific and ranges all over the map, but it does help shed some light on the source material and the production. A 20-minute featurette called "The Weight of the Line: Animation Tales" covers the process used in converting the film from the original footage into the breathtaking rotoscoped finished product. For some reason, a second featurette entitled "One Summer in Austin: Filming A Scanner Darkly," that was included in the 2007 Blu-ray release, is not included in this post-moratorium re-release.
What's that you say? Wasn't this film already released on Blu-ray back in 2007? Yup. So why are we seeing it released on the format yet again? I couldn't find the specifics, but for some reason, the film was put on moratorium and has been made available again only recently. Sometimes studios will pull a film from retail, preparing for an expanded version, a new transfer or some other form of the dreaded double-dip, but in this case it seems this "new" release is a carbon copy. We get no new features or content and the 1080p/VC-1 master used to produce the 2007 BD release seems to be the same one that is used for this new release. I guess the bottom line is that if you've been pining for the opportunity to add A Scanner Darkly to your hi-def library and missed the boat the last time around, you can now rejoice.
While I can recognize the unique and impressive animation, the stellar cast and other elements of the film that have merit, A Scanner Darkly is simply not for me; I'm glad I've finally seen it but have no desire to see it again. Mr. Linklater, if you're reading this, please chat with the folks at Marvel Knights Animation, as they could learn a lot from you about how to improve their motion comics.
You've seen the film, now read the book. I just may pick up a copy of Dick's novel to see if I can better wrap my stone-cold sober brain around one of the wackiest films I've seen in some time. Sure, it's no Brazil, but A Scanner Darkly is one strange ride.
Not guilty...or maybe guilty of being just too bizarre for words? I'll get
back to you.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Philip K. Dick Official Site