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Our reviews of A Scanner Darkly (published December 19th, 2006), A Scanner Darkly (Blu-Ray) (published September 27th, 2010), and A Scanner Darkly (Blu-Ray) (published April 16th, 2007) are also available.
"Crazy job they gave me. But if I wasn't doing it, someone else would be. And they might get it wrong."
There's a danger in believing the negative press that attached itself to Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly. Much that was said was intended to convince would-be viewers that the film was without meaning, was convoluted, was shallowly conceived, and was simply to be dismissed. Will you believe those assertions? Will you dutifully consume those sentiments and determine to walk the other way, as instructed, forsaking a personal experience with this undeniably unusual and unique film such that you could determine the film's merits for yourself? If you do walk away, well, then you're to be commended for your compliance. It would seem that some interests, institutions, and factions would prefer you not see it, lest you begin to ponder its socially-challenging statements within your own intellect. In fact, you may even form your own conclusions about the film's theories, those that aren't so much given to science-fiction fantasy as they are anchored in what seem to be well-founded pronouncements against our current state of culture control. Philip K. Dick, author of the original material, is truly aware of our new Millennium situation—except for the fact his original novel was published in 1977 and he died in 1982.
The message is poignant and important, if you choose to experience it first hand.
Facts of the Case
A scant seven years in our future, America's drug war has arguably been lost. An insipid drug known as Substance D, one that destroys the brain by separating its two hemispheres until they conflict with one another, is being liberally consumed by at least 20 percent of the nation's population, and a totalitarian police state has emerged to covertly monitor and manage the situation. An undercover narc, Fred (Keanu Reeves, Constantine) has been assigned to monitor a group of Substance D users, including the wily Barris (Robert Downey, Jr., Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) and grungy Luckman (Woody Harrelson, After the Sunset) to uncover the ultimate source of their drug supply. There's particular interest in one of the users, Bob Arctor, since his girlfriend, Donna (Winona Ryder, Lost Souls), apparently maintains the source-of-supply contact. Fred is tasked with following Arctor's every move, aided by hidden videoscan surveillance, since it is he who will most likely help expose Donna's supplier. The only complication is that Fred is Bob Arctor; they are the same person. "Fred" is the anonymously-named narc, one of many such undercover agents that use pseudonyms and remain cloaked in scramble suits to protect their true identities. But, having taken Substance D himself to establish camaraderie and trust within the users' circle, Fred/Bob Arctor has ultimately initiated the fracturing of his own psyche, leaving him to cope with his worsening mental duality, increasingly uncertain about who he really is.
It's understandable that some who have already seen A Scanner Darkly might have been those who walked away with a rather bummed out feeling. The film certainly doesn't gain high marks for spreading utopian idealism; quite the contrary, as this one is severely steeped in dystopian resignation. From the moment we meet Fred, we can see he's none too thrilled to give his presentation about Substance D to the assembly of Brown Bear Lodge members. It's a tediously postured affair, and Fred seems burned out about the whole matter. At that point, tension rises when Fred begins to lose his train of thought, speaking as if he were someone else who despises the methods of narc agents and the fact that they've been able to infiltrate groups of users posing as one of them; that would be the other identity, Bob Arctor, colliding with Fred and the instructions set forth by his superiors. Immediately, this early conflict establishes a tone of despair, distrust, and disenfranchisement. At the outset, we begin to question this future ourselves with a downtrodden sense of "why bother?"
The unkempt single-family home Arctor and his housemates inhabit, along with the manic Freck's bile-orange economy car, represent a compellingly believable and disconcertingly bleak "future." That is, unlike notions of Jetson's-like mechanizations, sleek and stylish, that have been retrofitted to an entire population, Linklater smartly retains relics of former technology, just as we currently maintain such relics from our decades past. This gives an uneasiness, then, that this future is now and that the debilitation brought on by Substance D is highly plausible in just seven years from today. With this, the somber tone is deepened—we see the varied elements of our current existence, those tangible items that offer pleasures we currently crave, but their potential for fulfillment is nullified by the effects of Substance D and, moreover, the tactics utilized by an unchecked authoritarian institution. It's all the stuff we have and want on display, but nobody seems to be having much fun. By this point, it becomes obvious this 7-year-advanced society has crossed over to the realm of "buying more but enjoying it less."
While others have complained there's no action in the picture, the fact is there is plenty of it—action of a paranoid sort. Indeed, there's plenty of paranoia to go around among the frayed foursome and their drab existences, not to mention the wavering psyche of Fred/Bob Arctor. Affected by their Substance D addictions and endlessly railing over their fears and suspicions, it's mentally strenuous to keep up with the users' exaggerated and unrelenting suppositions of who might be watching and how a covert operation might be disguised in order to infiltrate their pointless reality. It's true, then, that the picture avoids clichéd action set-pieces, electing to spend time looking at and listening to the druggies bemoan an 18-gear bike that might be 10 gears shy, or frantically reel over the prospect that their car's engine had been deliberately tampered with. In this setting, and with this type of drug-addled subject matter, this is the sort of action we should expect. Linklater lets us spend time with the degenerates, witnessing the things they would say and do within the context of their reality. To trump up the tale with stock sci-fi fare would be to ruin its tone, its delivery, and its remarkably prescient message.
But the apex of the experience here occurs when the viewer realizes the film has started a stream of consciousness within his own mind, essentially telling only part of a story and leaving said viewer to mull its continuation after the final frames have flickered past. So, as disjointed as Linklater's embodiment of the film might appear, it seems he has actually provided a workspace for the viewer to toil within, unexplained or under-exposited areas of the narrative that are deliberate though might be confounding to some, as in "intentional blank page." These areas are meant, it would seem, for the viewer to do some homework, the sort where there is no wrong answer, but to provide no answer isn't satisfactory. If it sounds as if this comes on as an unwanted task, just remember what you've been programmed to understand for your entire educational experience—if you cheat, you only cheat yourself. Therefore, Linklater, like Dick, expects writing within the margins of the film, and if you elect not to, well, it's your loss.
The film, then, is so dense that it's best enjoyed, and properly absorbed, through the use of the "pause" button. Much as you would set a book on your lap as you cogitate over a passage just read, so too does A Scanner Darkly beg to be interrupted as you ponder how you feel about what you just experienced at the moment you experienced it. Easily, I extended the viewing time of this disc by an extra thirty minutes as I halted the playback to turn it over in my own mind before proceeding—I was mentally scribbling in the margins. By this, the film becomes a more interactive experience and one that draws you deeper into the characters' postulations, paranoia, and ultimate plight. And, for this benefit gained by having immediate control of the picture, I find this particular film to be best suited for an in-home viewing; I simply cannot imagine the frustration of being unable to halt and occasionally rewind a theatrical screening. That said, perhaps the lack of playback control could likely be reason so many in-theater viewers missed the film's deepest messages, those that go far beyond just a cautionary tale about drug use and abuse.
While I've seen a good many high definition discs, of both formats, very few have proven themselves to be top tier. The high-def enthusiasts would likely ask whether this one is a bona-fide "Tier 0" disc; it is. That topmost ranking on the high definition scale (0—5, descending) has been warranted but a few times among the many new format discs released to date, but here it is well earned. This one is somewhat unlike other animated features, though, and you shouldn't expect to see staggering textures as found in Happy Feet or Open Season. In this presentation, it's the color and the remarkable rendering of the interpolated rotoscoping animation that steals the show, the image appearing vibrant, exquisitely contrasted, and impeccably controlled for the duration. Encoded in a 1080p / VC-1 transfer, the 1.85:1 image benefits from a flawless digital source, that perfection maintained on this HD DVD disc. There's plenty of detail to be found, the intended segregation of color gradients set off by rich dark outlines to stunning effect. Visually, this one excels and proves itself to be a perfect selection for high-definition mastering.
The audio is presented in a Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 Surround mix that performs admirably and is only constrained by the film's original sound design. In general, it's a clean and well delineated mix but it feels definitely confined. This, however, was an arguably good choice given the mental claustrophobia the characters suffer under. Therefore, the mix suits the situation and cannot be faulted for not containing the sort of bombast that has been found on other dissimilar discs.
Extras on this HD DVD edition includes all features previously released on the Standard Definition DVD, beginning with the excellent think-tank commentary among Linklater, Reeves, producer Tommy Pallotta, author Jonathan Lethem (a Dick specialist), and Dick's daughter, Isa Dick-Hackett. Immediately, they delve into the themes and styles used in Dick's profound body of work and explore the relevance of this particular work in our post-9/11 world. Don't expect too much discussion of the production itself, but prepare yourself for a good listen as this talkative group likely touches upon many of the ruminations you entertained while watching the film. A 26-minute featurette, One Summer in Austin: The Story of Filming A Scanner Darkly, presents interviews with Linklater, Reeves, Downey, Jr., Harrelson, and Pallotta, plus plenty of behind-the-scenes peeks to explain the origin and culmination of this unusual yet important film. Then, the 20-minute featurette The Weight of the Line: Animation Tales provides the details of the animation process used here and will not disappoint those interested to learn how integral it was to faithfully delivering the film's message. An original theatrical trailer is also present.
All in all, this HD DVD release is a complete package and one that best represents the look, feel, and tone of A Scanner Darkly. Easily, this is a disc to purchase, since replay value runs high. If you previously invested in the SD DVD, dump it and get this one instead (or, if you prefer Blu-ray, you'll be happy to know the disc specs—codec, audio kbps, and extras—are identical).
A Scanner Darkly is another excellent entry into Linklater's growing oeuvre of social-minded films. Here he demonstrates that he will not be tied to particular genre or style, electing to pay visits to practically any and every social circumstance where he'll provide plenty of his own commentary—be it comical, counter-culture, cautionary, or caustic—in a way that celebrates characters, not contrivances, and that resonates long after the film has ended. Once you've seen it and have had the opportunity to ingest and absorb its philosophy the first time around, it's likely you'll be making repeat visits to this dimly lit world of tomorrow. If nothing else, it will be difficult to stop thinking—and talking—about it after you've seen it for yourself.
But you must see it for yourself.
It is this court's opinion that institutional malfeasance has been committed, vaguely disguised as lawful procedure, and has resulted in the loss of livelihood for special agent Fred/Bob Arctor. This court, then, finds the defendant not guilty and awards the counter-claim leveled against the rogue forces that have perpetrated the social destruction they have dared profess they oppose.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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