A Scanner Darkly Review

Originally penned in the wake of acclaimed author and intermittent drug addict Philip K. Dick's own personal affliction with amphetamines, A Scanner Darkly is regarded by many fans to be his finest work, a statement that should immediately make one sit up and pay attention. A cynical and bleak rendition of co-dependency, symbiotic hypocrisy, and fractured reality, this tale of a big brother afflicted, psychotropic drug addicted near future blurs the line between perception and reality to the point where it simply ceases to exist.

Shot and then digitally recolored into a psychedelic kaleidoscope of swirling patterns of light and color called rotoscope, the story tells of a future society in which two of every ten citizens is in the employ of the state to monitor and report on the other eight. Agent Fred is one such undercover operative. With his identity hidden from everyone including his handlers by way of a scramble suit, which constantly jumbles the features and distorts the voice of the wearer, he is tasked to infiltrate a group of Substance D users and try to find a lead to its manufacture and distribution.

Fred focuses his attention on Bob Arctor (Reeves), whom he believes can lead him to the source. But Fred has himself become addicted to Substance D, which has caused the two hemispheres of his brain to function independently. They have ceased to be able to combine their knowledge, memories and skills, causing them to diverge into what is essentially two distinctly different personalities.

Unfairly dismissed as emotionally cold and aloof by some, its critics are unfortunately missing one of the film's finer points, its authenticity. Linklater's faithful adaptation of Dick's dialogue perfectly captures the mood of such a commune of users – a group that come together out of sheer need, who probably don't like one another, and who are completely devoid of the ability to trust or connect on any kind of meaningful, emotional level. The much disliked tendency of the film to throw up narrative threads which are dropped at a whim, and characters that are written in to be seemingly ejected, is a perfect metaphor for the way such people live their lives. This is a world with no goodbyes, where closure simply does not exist. People drop out, burn out, get well, O.D. or simply disappear. The only thing that remains constant is the scene.

Keanu Reeves was born to play the role of Bob Arctor. His almost permanent look of utter bewilderment combined with the dull, hollow confidence in his voice perfectly encapsulate a crumbling sense of self-awareness. Linklater's casting of support actors whose careers have gone off the rails in no small part thanks to their own drug use is also inspired. Woodey Harrelson and Robert Downey Junior are unsurprisingly completely real as Arctor's companions who are so paranoid they see betrayal at every turn, yet so fried in the head they cannot see what is right in front of them. Winona Ryder also shows why she once had a career to be taken seriously as the frantic and frazzled Donna Hawthorne, that Fred secretly covets as he works to bring them all down.

The rotoscopic animation will put a great many people off, while the convoluted and complicated plot, that you are forced to pick up on your own because the characters are intentionally too high to do it for you, will put off even more. But the visuals and narrative confusion imply just the correct amount of emotional distance and uncertainty of situation to make you one of the players in this dizzying game of VR blind man's bluff, which makes this one of the most engaging rides of recent times.

Blu-ray Bonus Features

Somewhat disappointing in that not only is there nothing new included on this Blu-ray release, there is actually less here than is on the standard DVD. The extensive commentary track, featuring Reeves, Linklater, Producer Tommy Pallotta, Author Jonathen Lathem, and Dick's daughter, Isa Dick Hackett, is here, as is the Animation Tales featurette. But the making-of, One Summer in Austin, is conspicuous by it's absence.

"A Scanner Darkly" is on sale September 7, 2010 and is rated R. Sci-Fi. Directed by Richard Linklater. Written by Richard Linklater (Screenplay), Philip K. Dick (Novel). Starring Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr, Rory Cochrane, Winona Ryder, Woody Harrelson.

Neil Pedley • Associate Editor

Neil is a film school graduate from England now living in New York. In addition to JustPressPlay, Neil writes about for Uinterview.com as well as being a columist and weekly podcast host at IFC.com. His free time is spent acting out scenes from Predator in the woods behind his house, playing all the different parts himself.


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