What Does a Scanner See?

by Alan Rapp on July 13, 2006

in Movie Reviews 

  • Title: A Scanner Darkly
  • IMDB: link

a-scanner-darkly-posterIn terms of filmmaking A Scanner Darkly is a huge success.  In terms of an enjoyable summer flick…well, let’s just say it’s not something you want to go into without being prepared for.  The film is based of Philip K Dick’s novel of the same name which is an otherworldly fictional semi-autobiographical tale about drug use and drug culture.  Still with me?  It’s an intense picture that at times is very slow and somewhat difficult to enjoy, but by the end what you are left with is an undeniably unique theater experience that you will either cherish or curse my name for recommending it to you.

Agent Fred (Keanu Reeves) is an undercover police agent playing the role of a drug dealer named Bob Arctor.  Even his bosses don’t know who Fred really is, only that he is one of the people in the house which is filled with hidden cameras and scanners.  All his reports are made while wearing a scramble suit which completely hides his identity.

The constant use of a powerful psychoactive drug known as “Substance D” by Arctor and his housmates (Robert Downey Jr, Woody Harrelson, and Rory Cochrane) leads each of them to an increasing level of paranoia.  The drug causes each hemisphere of a person’s brain to work independently.  Arctor’s continued use leaves him unable to separate his role of Arctor with that of Agent Fred.

Things get even more sticky as his bosses decide tha Arctor is the most important and dangerous member of the house and should be the main focus of Fred’s investigation.  Add to that an increasing dependency on Substance D, his crush on his supplier (Winona Ryder), the stress of psychological tests by his overseers, and his increasing schizophrenia and delusional state and you can tell he’s on the way to a big fall.

The film is amazing.  At times it’s hard to get through as the first hour focuses on how screwed up this group of people is and how the drug is easting away at them.  Director Richard Linklater‘s choice of actors who have had their own problems with drug addictions works well and adds to the hyper-realism of the film.

Harrelson and Downey are terrific but the real surprise is Keanu Reeves who carries the film.  He’s so good in fact that afterwards I had a hard time coming up with someone who could have done a better job in this role that seems to suit his personality so well.  Linklater received a massive amount of flak from Dick fans for this casting, but it turns out his choice here was the right one.

The Rotoscope animation technique also adds a sense of surrealism and unreality which fits the story of a man whose mind is slowly slipping away.  The technique calls for scenes to be shot normally as you would for any movie, but then animators trace over the film frame by frame.  Linklater used the effect in Waking Life with limited success, but here the effect helps illustrate the very odd world from Philip K. Dick’s brain.

Enjoyed may not be exactly the right word for my experience.  I appreciated the film very much, but in many ways the film is hard to get through and depressing.  That said, it’s a tremendous piece of work for all involved and a great success for Linklater and his entire cast.  In how the film deals with and presents the twisted reality of Philip K Dick it is likely it is the most accurate portrayal and vision we will ever get.  Although slow at times the last few minutes are amazing and actually have you craving for more, not unlike Arctor’s need for more Substance D.  It’s not for everyone, but for those not put off by the subject matter and in the mood for something very different, I would recommend you take a look at A Scanner Darkly.

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