Movie Review: A Scanner Darkly
Movie Review: A Scanner Darkly
Opening this past weekend in limited release, the newest film adaptation of a Phillip K. Dick novel hits area theaters. The story follows a group of middle american drug users as they live, love and battle in the very near future. Phillip K. Dick is an American SCI-FI icon who delves deep into the human experience using science fiction themes as a backdrop for issues we all contend with. A Scanner Darkly is no different. Set 7 years into our future, this movie addresses issues we are living with today.
The protagonist of the film is an undercover LAPD cop who is trying to root out the source of a highly addictive and dangerous drug, substance D. He surrounds himself with a cast of sadly comical characters, lives in a run down suburban home (located in true Americana style at the end of a cul-de-sac), and spends his time trying to do his job and deal with a developing substance D addiction. He involves himself romantically with a mysterious drug dealer named Donna, who he hopes will shed light on the ultimate source of substance D.
As an undercover officer, Agent Fred's identity must be protected and shielded from everyone, including his own handlers. The scanners referred to in the title are high quality audio and video surveillance used to monitor every aspect of Bob Arctors (Agent Fred's undercover persona) life. In order to accomplish this , Agent Fred dons a scramble suite that blocks the scanner sensors by constantly displaying random images of different people in different clothing and modifying his voice. As Bob Arctor takes more substance D, Agent Fred's left and right brain hemispheres start to disassociate to the point where he has trouble separating his real life from the fake one. When his handlers inform him of his drug related brain damage, Agent Fred swears off substance D with tragic results. He finds himself suffering through withdrawal and turns to the only help available, New Path recovery clinics. The true antagonist of the film, New Path is not all it seems as Agent Fred soon learns. The audience also learns that the people surrounding both Agent Fred and Bob Arctor are not as they first appear either.
The amazing look of this film. Director Richard Linklater puts together a great story with some really amazing cinematography. When I first saw the previews for this film, I thought "Hmmm someone is having lots of fun with photoshop filters." But after seeing the movie, it became plainly obvious that this was the only way to do it right. Shot digitally, and then animated using interpolated rotoscoping, (the process of digitally tracing footage for animation) this movie provides a unique feel where the animation becomes an intergal part of the story. At times the animation feels subtle, mostly on close up character shots where feeling and emotion are important to the scene. Then almost instantly the audience is given a scene where depth and perspective are skewed. Exterior shots with moving objects such as cars and even highway travel scenes really show this aspect of the animation. By the end of the film, I realized how unsettling this can be. But it helped impress the overall mood of the film, and for that Linklater should be commended. After watching this film, I am now very interested in seeing The Waking Life , another Linklater film shot in the same format. In a 2004 documentary, Linklater described the interpolated rotoscoping technique claiming it was the only way to represent his Lucid Dreaming ideas. I couldn't agree more.
The casting was also superb (With one notable exception which I will get into a bit later). Woody Harrelson and Robert Downey Jr. played great drug addict roles. The laughs they create while high and dealing with simple life challenges such as 18 speed bikes (or is it a 9 speed?) and ordering dessert are paranoid and tragic and worth every laugh. Even Wynonna Rider (whom I am not normally a fan of) was surprisingly good.
The amazing look of this film. Now before you start yelling "hypocrite!" let me explain. The shifting depth perception and perspectives threw off my equilibrium and made me a bit nauseous. The scramble suits were especially disturbing. The constant shifting of faces and body parts really made me uncomfortable. But like a horrific highway accident, I couldn't help but stare. The "bad" was a must have for this movie. Much like Sin City, where animation and camera usage are so much a part of this film, it becomes another character telling its part of the story.
The casting of Keanu Reeves as Agent Fred/Bob Arctor. I have serious doubts as to Keanu Reeves' humanity. I've watched tomatoes rotting in a field have more emotional range and inspired sympathy. In the first Matrix film, the confused lost little boy act was sorta new, now its just annoying. I never felt the fall of Agent Fred/Bob Arctor. I just couldn't identify with him because the character never really changed. The only way we really knew of the substance D withdrawal was a single scene of Agent Fred vomiting in the lobby of a New Path recovery clinic. He might as well have been on a bad booze bender for all the emotion it brought out. Keanu is the reason I referred to Arctor/Agent Fred as the "protagonist" and not the hero. There was nothing heroic about Keanu playing this role.
I also disliked the way New Path was represented. The original story really told the story of New Path. How New Path destroys a persons self worth and personal pride, emptying them of all personality and then attempting to "rebuild" them in a new image. The fact that the LAPD had attempted to infiltrate New Path and failed on several occasions was never really explained. The lack of backstory for New Path combined with Reeves' terrible acting really left the ending feeling hollow and empty.
All together, this movie is a disturbing look at a very possible future, where big corporations value profit above substance and the powers that be are watching everything we do. As always we here at Memepunks recommend checking out the source material of anything that trips our triggers. A Scanner Darkly is no exception. The Head Memepunk in Charge has read the book, but not yet for this lowly film reviewer. It has now moved way up the "To be read by me" list, thanks to this movie.
4 memestars, had it not been for Mr. Woah.... as it is, 3.5