A Scanner Darkly Review

Right off the bat, let's just say it. Let's make claims. Damned it all, let's make a statement.

Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly is bar none, the best and most "accurate" Phillip K. Dick adaptation ever made.

It seemed like a match made in heaven. One of PKD's less sci-fi sci-fi books, that largely is about junkies humorously going on drug binges, to be adapted by the hands that crafted Slackers and Dazed and Confused. This film is much, much closer to those two than it is to the movie that it will undoubtedly be compared to, Waking Life. Linklater injected a lot of what he does best into PKD's story: characters that seem to leap out of your personal life. He "updated" the characters in the novel into what they would be like here, today.

In most movies, drug users are often portrayed as a member of either these two classes: The cool, hip, occasional recreational user... and the down-trotten hopelessly addicted junkie. What Linklater did, is bring the two closer together. This film paints its characters as the hip, smart, funny, and charming drug users that they are, often launching into drug-induced philosophical and metaphysical conversations that are so hypnotic to listen to (the complete opposite of the characters in Trainspotting or Requiem For A Dream), but it never shies away from the problems that are waiting for them. These characters are stuck standing on a very thin line, where one slip-up would dunk them head-on into a sea of lethal addiction. Most importantly, they ring true. If you've ever associated yourself with these types of people (*cough* like a certain reviewer... *cough*), you'd recognize immediately the tell-tale behaviors. The words they use are choice; phrases that you hear real-life users say to friends (and themselves) to defend their habit. "Oh, it's just coke. I would never do something serious like shooting up." or "I don't use a lot. A bit more recently just because of work stress. No big deal." or "Everybody's addicted to something. So what? I'm happy."

If this sounds like a film about drugs and drug addicts and not a futuristic sci-fi, that's because it is. The sci-fi elements in the story are purely from a technology standpoint, such as the Scrambler suits or the holographic computers. You can tell this exact same story set in present day. Replace the scrambler suits with masks and/or anonymous phone calls, the high-tech video surveillance with cheap audio bugs, and you got yourself a contemporary film. The reason for the sci-fi environment is to add to the already outer-worldly vibe. In a story about paranoia, drug experiences, and dual identities, the direct contrast of mundane environments with futuristic objects provides us with a glimpse into a parallel world. A realm so fantastic, yet strangely close to home. It anchors you into your own reality, giving the bleak science and the fiction an arguably discomforting familiarity.

Which is the reason why the rotoscope technique works so well in this film. The method -- which was gorgeously done, I might add -- adds another layer of that other-wordly feel, one where you simply cannot distinguish the reality from the made up. Imagine if they had done it with standard CGI. No matter how well done, the average person can still split up what exists and what's movie magic. In the realm of animation, these lines are blurred, almost erased. The futuristic details seamlessly blend into the rest of the shots. On some instances, the background animation are so photo-realistic that it separates from the more flat, vector-looking characters. Vice versa. This might be jarring to some, and it's very obviously so to the audience in my theater. Whenever characters are topless or having sex, I hear loud giggles, cat calls and gasps from many. I had the impression that a lot of them just didn't know what to make of it, shuffling out quickly as soon as the credits rolled. Sadly proving that perhaps Americans aren't ready to see "cartoons" tackling these subject matters.

The acting are stellar across the board. Woody Harrelson plays a great hyperactive version of Matthew McConaughey, who provides most of the laughs as the obligatory spacehead. Robert Downey jr. does what Robert Downey jr. does best. Rory Cochrane is downright crazy, nearly epileptic. Winona Ryder is perfectly cast as the fashionably hippie California girl that you know in real life as that girl who's always crashing at some guy's place to smoke a joint. As for Keanu? Well, Keanu is a great example of calculated casting choice. The character he plays is always zoned out, perpetually confused as to what is what. Keanu plays this character all too well, with his deadpan stare and his disoriented expression guiding us through one weird experience after another. In a bevy of extremely natural performances, he doesn't stick out like a sore thumb, which is accomplishment enough.

This film is tragic, suspenseful, chilling, fascinating, and fiercely comical. Exactly how it's supposed to be.

"A Scanner Darkly" opens July 7, 2006 and is rated R. Drama, Sci-Fi. Written and directed by Richard Linklater. Starring Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr, Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder.

Arya Ponto • Contributor

As former Editor of JPP, Arya likes to entertain peeps with his thoughts on pop culture, when he's not busy watching Battle Royale for the 200th time. He lives in Brooklyn with a comic book collection that's always the most daunting thing to move with, and writes for Artboiled.com.


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