Appellate Judge Dave Ryan often wonders whether androids dream of electric sheep.
Our reviews of A Scanner Darkly (published December 19th, 2006), A Scanner Darkly (Blu-Ray) (published September 27th, 2010), and A Scanner Darkly (HD DVD) (published April 16th, 2007) are also available.
"This has been a story about people who were punished entirely too much for what they did. I loved them all."—Philip K. Dick
"Drugs are bad, mmmkay? If you do drugs…you're bad, mmmkay? Mmmkay!"—Mr. Mackey
Facts of the Case
Robert Arctor (Keanu Reeves, The Matrix) is a low-grade drug addict. He shares the use of his Orange County house with a bunch of other drug addicts—his friends Barris (Robert Downey, Jr., Chaplin), Luckman (Woody Harrelson, Natural Born Killers), and Freck (Rory Cochrane, Dazed and Confused), and his girlfriend Donna (Winona Ryder, Heathers). All are hooked on Substance D, a potent drug whose origin and source are unknown.
What Arctor's druggie friends don't know is that he is an undercover agent working for the police. Through the use of a "scramble suit" that disguises his identity, Arctor works at the Orange County anonymously under the pseudonym "Fred"—even his superior "Hank" (also scrambled) doesn't know his real-life identity. Things get confusing when Barris decides to rat out his friend Arctor to the police, claiming he's the point man of a terrorist organization. "Fred" is assigned to observe Arctor—since, of course, the police do not know they're the same person. But Arctor's Substance D use is on the rise, and his two personalities may not be fully aware of each other…
The Sixties and Seventies were a golden age for science fiction. Fans recognize a number of authors from that era as classic, great, genre-defining writers: Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Lester del Ray, Stanislaw Lem, Frank Herbert, Ray Bradbury, Larry Niven, and Harlan Ellison, to name but a few. (Many apologies to those I didn't name.) Science fiction writers, though, heap much of their praise on an amphetamine junkie from San Francisco who never achieved much commercial success with his novels: Philip K. Dick.
Dick's copious output of material between the early 50s and his death in 1982 was largely ignored by the general reading public in the U.S. In the years after his death, though, his work has found enormous, blockbuster-level success through film adaptations. You know the films: Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, Paycheck. Admittedly, some of these adaptations were looser than others, and Paycheck was a failure in almost every way. But Dick's writing, which often focuses on themes of paranoia, mistrust, and neo-fascist government oppression, seems to resonate with contemporary film audiences.
Dick's 1977 novel A Scanner Darkly is science fiction in only the loosest sense. In reality, it's Dick's version of an autobiography, taking his own experiences—Dick left his wife and two children in the Sixties and became, more or less, a drug-using hippie—and using them to craft a parable about Nixonian paranoia and distrust. It's a book about drugs and those who use them; the science fiction genre's equivalent of William Burroughs' Junkie. It doesn't seem like the kind of material that a young hotshot director like Richard Linklater would want to tackle.
Yet tackle it he does, and does well. Unlike other directors (coughSpielbergcough), he doesn't turn this dark, disturbing, uncomfortable story into a more Hollywood-friendly action thriller. He tells it straight, and in doing so has produced probably the most faithful Dick adaptation to date. There are a few variances here and there, and one significant plot point that's only hinted at in the novel is made conclusive here, but on the whole, this is a near-direct translation of Dick's work from page to screen.
A lot of the credit has to go to the stellar cast, who are perfectly cast in their roles. Each character is an archetype of a specific kind of drug addict. Luckman is the prototypical hard-core stoner; pretty harmless on the whole, entertaining, and fuzzed out most of the time. Harrelson brings his knack for physical comedy to the role—although one could argue that he's really not acting if he's playing a loveable, harmless stoner…Robert Downey, Jr.'s drug problems are well-documented, and have arguably irreparably derailed the career of probably the finest actor of his generation. Here, he brings that talent to the role of Barris, who is the prototypical raging cokehead. The drugs don't cognitively impair him, but they make him hyper-aware and paranoid, possibly to the point of psychopathy. Hell, he may be a replicant for all we know. Again, you wonder whether this is really just Downey being Downey. In any event, it's a complex character that Downey really sinks his teeth into.
Rory Calhoun—who, to the best of my knowledge, has no history of drug abuse—gets to play the most screwed-up one of the bunch, Freck. Freck is Dick's nightmare about what he could have become—a raging speed freak. Freck is so wired that he's in a near constant state of hallucination. It's a spectacularly quirky performance by Calhoun; he more than holds his own with Downey in the "I totally believe this guy is a complete and total dope fiend" category.
Lastly, there's the borderline-functional couple, Arctor and Donna. Donna is based on the typical 70s recreational drug user—she probably does smallish amounts of coke and Quaaludes on a daily basis, with occasional higher-level binges, and oils her gears with alcohol on the side. She's at the lowest level of use that could constitute addiction: it affects her life, but not all that much. She, unlike Freck, Barris, and Luckman, has fallen into the drug subculture mainly by choice, not by necessity. Ryder was a great choice for the role—she can play strung-out without losing any of her natural sweetness. The negative press generated by her erratic behavior over the past decade, culminating with her shoplifting arrest, has obscured the fact that Ryder is a very talented actress. This role reminds us of that fact.
Arctor, on the other hand, is, at the start of the film, pre-addictive. He's the type of guy who uses Substance D professionally—because he needs it to blend in with his surveillance targets—and to "just take the edge off." But with any drug use, there comes a price, and as Arctor increases his use of Substance D, that price is paid via his increasing mental imbalances. Arctor is Dick as he sees himself—trapped by the drugs, but not irrevocably trapped by them. And that brings us to Keanu Reeves.
I know this is an unpopular position in today's world, but I'm unafraid to say it: I like Keanu. Yes, I'll admit that he's not as brilliant a pure actor as Downey, or even as good as Calhoun or Ryder. But I think he's been unfairly maligned and typecast, thanks to his roles in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure and the Matrix films, as a wooden surfer dude who's inexplicably found Hollywood millions. To which I say, au contraire. I remember Keanu being unforgettable in Parenthood, playing the surfer dude so well, even given the limited amount of screen time he had, that he wasn't a stereotype; he was a living, breathing character. I remember him acquitting himself well in the interesting but overlooked Johnny Mnemonic. I think Constantine wasn't a perfect film, and I don't think Reeves' performance matched the expectations of fans of the source materials. But I found him interesting, and I thought he effectively communicated the world-weariness of someone tasked with defending the world from unseen evil. Yes, he was woefully miscast as an 80s-style action hero in Speed, and Point Break was just stupid fun across the board—but is that really his fault? And I don't think it's fair to denigrate his acting ability based on The Matrix and its sequels; I think he was doing just what he was asked to do with the character. Neo was supposed to be a blank slate onto which Morpheus wrote destiny. He wasn't a character, he was a tool. As such, I think the lack of affect and almost robotic approach taken by Reeves was not only appropriate, but insightful. Reeves isn't as versatile as other actors; I'll freely admit that, too. But I think there are definitely "Keanu Reeves roles," and when he gets those, he excels. This is one of those Keanu Reeves roles, and I think he excels here. Reeves effectively and subtly communicates Arctor's increasing cognitive dysfunction, and serves as a strong anchor of "normalcy" (or what passes for normalcy in this tale) for the viewer. His low-key delivery and personality mesh well with the character. He's not as loquacious or as openly intense as the real-life Philip Dick, but he's a good proxy nonetheless.
The other distinguishing feature of A Scanner Darkly is that it's entirely animated—but it's not a cartoon. Linklater uses the same rotoscoping technique used in his Waking Life to give the film a slightly surreal, cel-shaded look that's extremely unique. A featurette included as an extra shows the immense effort that went into the animation: essentially, every frame was redrawn by animators using the latest in computer technology. What you see is not a "colored" copy of the original film stock shot by Linklater; it's a uniquely generated animated frame based on that original film. The effect, although unusual, is easy to get used to, and definitely adds to the film's sense that things are not as they seem. (Literally.) It also allows the film to take more liberties with hallucinations and such, without interrupting the highly realistic nature of the base animation. Again, the effort put into animating the film in this way was tremendous, making it all the more impressive.
In its Blu-ray incarnation, the transfer of A Scanner Darkly is absolutely spectacular. With its pastel-ish primary colors, the rotoscoped feature looks as if it's been painted on your television, even on the biggest screens. It's almost Impressionist in its look. It's a suitable showpiece for your technology, although (due to the nature of its animated source) it lacks the microscopic detail of digital video-shot source material. The Dolby surround mix is perfectly fine for this dialog-heavy film.
As extras, the disc includes a commentary track by Linklater and Reeves, joined by producer Tommy Pallotta and author Jonathan Lethem, who has written about Dick. Also on the commentary is Dick's daughter, Isa Dick-Hackett. (Which is an anagram of "the tack is a dick." In case you were wondering.) Dick-Hackett and Lethem provide a lot of insight into the autobiographical nature of the novel (and therefore this film), which is quite interesting. Linklater is fairly interesting; Reeves, as usual, doesn't really have a lot to say, but what he does say is usually thoughtful. The featurette "One Summer in Austin" has some good information on the actual filming of the picture; as noted above, there is also a featurette that focuses on the animation process exclusively. It's a good package of extras, but I felt like there could have been more. A Scanner Darkly is a complex, difficult book, and the film version inherits those traits—it requires more discussion than this.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This is obviously not a mainstream film. It's not really science fiction, either—at least not "science fiction" as it is usually defined today. What most people think of as "sci-fi" is "hard" science fiction; fiction that emphasizes the science, or the scientific details (real or fictional), in the story. The best example of that is Isaac Asimov's robot stories. Here, the "science," what little there is, is pretty much irrelevant. The surveillance technology, which was only barely futuristic when the novel was published in 1977, actually exists today. This is a "soft" sci-fi story; one that focuses more on the philosophical/psychological aspects of the tale. I'd argue that it's really miscast as a sci-fi picture—if you set this in the Seventies, very little would have to change. (Only the "scramble suit" is truly a sci-fi element in this story.) On the other hand, it's just too weird to be accepted as a straight drama. In many ways, this dichotomy reflects Dick's writing career: he became a science fiction writer because it was easier to sell sci-fi stories; therefore, the shortest road to publication was adding science fiction elements to your otherwise non-sci-fi story. And sure enough, A Scanner Darkly wouldn't really sell as a drama, but doesn't quite fit into the sci-fi genre easily. It's almost certainly an acquired taste, a lot like David Cronenberg's filmic version of Naked Lunch (which was really an amalgam of the titular novel, Junkie, and various real-life tales from Burroughs' life).
Some viewers might not like the fact that the film does not judge its junkies in the least. That's really Dick's point, and to do otherwise would be inaccurate—but some people probably won't like that element.
Also, it's not really Winona's boobs we're seeing in her nude scene. She wore a body suit, and the animators filled in the details. Boo!!!! She's an Impressionist work of art all by herself, dammit.
A Scanner Darkly is a dark, challenging, complex film about the dangers of drug use—but not in the "Just Say No" sense. It's a worthy adaptation of one of Philip K. Dick's best novels, which automatically makes it vaguely impenetrable for most of America. It's a well-made, good-looking film, and a film that's really different from the main body of Linklater's work. (This is about as far from School of Rock as you can get.) It is definitely not for everyone. But it looks great on Blu-ray, that's for sure.
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