A Scanner Darkly

A Scanner Darkly (2006)
Warner Home Video
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson
Extras: Commentary Track, Featurettes, Theatrical Trailer

In 1991 I was in love with a movie called "Slacker". It was excellent, and still is, and I consider it a classic in some ways, at the very least it made me want to visit Austin, Texas. I still haven't visited Austin, and I hate college towns, but I definitely still respect Richard Linklater. You see, a few years later, he has made some good movies as far as I'm concerned, the ones I've seen are "Dazed And Confused", "Waking Life", "Suburbia", "The School Of Rock". I have followed his career over the years and have been both impressed and unimpressed, but I never knew what to expect. Kind of like Stephen Soderbergh, but at the same time I felt like Linklater has been trying, half successfully, to break into the mainstream. It just hasn't happened, yet. And thanks for small miracles, because finally it appears that someone has made a faithful and literate adaptation of a Philip K. Dick novel, and not just any novel, mind you, but probably that author's quintessential work, the one he will be most recognized for, though not my favorite. "Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said" and "The Man In The High Castle" are two of my favorites by Philip K. Dick, and I must admit, I am something of a fan of his writings. I read his biography, and consider myself something of an armchair Philip K. Dick aficionado. And, of the many 'adaptations' of his writings, this one easily surpasses all the others, as far as capturing the artist's original vision.

To break it down quickly, many films have used his name in inspiration and only a few have actually succeeded. "Blade Runner" obviously comes to mind, and Philip K. Dick actually quite admired it. "Total Recall", "Screamers", "Minority Report", "Next" and others, but these are the cream of the crop. They are basically loose adaptations of his stories. So, in many ways, the name Philip K. Dick is often related to blockbuster science-fiction action films with impressive special effects; really, the exact opposite of the actual writer's works. They don't really capture his amphetamine induced psychosis very well. Of course his work has inspired not just filmmakers, but obviously writers and musicians. I don't think "OK Computer" by Radiohead would have existed in an alternate reality where Philip K. Dick didn't exist. How fitting that they do much of the music for this film.

The film is animated with a technology called 'Rotoscoping' which you may be familiar with from Linklater's previous film "Waking Life" or certain television commercials. Either way, let me just say, they filmed the movie version first, and then put a new form of animation over it. Just to get that out of the way. And it truly is a mesmerizing effect, and quite hallucinatory.

The film opens in a suburban Los Angeles of the not to distant future, but honestly, it could be now. We enter the demented world of Charles Freck (Linklater veteran Rory Cochran) who is going through a nightmarish form of delirium tremors inspired by some futuristic designer drug called Substance D. The animated insects are crawling all over his skin (and his poor dog's), and he makes a frantic call to everyone's savior in times of stress, Robert Downey, Jr. (playing sex obsessed James Barris, fellow user and informant). Later, the two converse over some drugged out philosophical ramblings at a diner and discuss methods of getting the attention of a seemingly cocaine numbed associate named Donna Hawthorne (played by psychedelic pioneer Timothy Leary's god-daughter Winona Ryder). Within the first ten minutes we realize that this is a world where hallucination blends perfectly with 'reality', and at first it can seem quite discordant, but the effect soon becomes intoxicating.

We soon meet the central character Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves), and we learn at a Police meeting that he is actually a disillusioned informant who wears a special suit that is constantly changing in a kaleidoscope of over a million identities. You have to see this suit to believe it, a constantly evolving and psychedelic montage of faces morphing in and out of each other, endlessly. And yes, the filmmakers used many real faces and you will go crazy trying to figure out who is who, and the effect just intensifies throughout the whole film. Arctor is a soldier and also a victim of a war on drugs in which his very identity has become a target. He has a habit, and yet to be confronted with the 'straight' people on the opposite end, he can only become nauseated. He is having an identity crisis, while wearing an 'identity crisis suit'. And to make matters more paranoid and mind boggling, he has been assigned to spy on 'himself', and his roommates, whose insane and tweaked out ramblings take up at least one third of the movie. Let's not forget, the cast also includes Woody Harrelson as Ernie Luckman and Robert Downey Jr. as James Barris. I haven't seen Harrelson and Downey do this well since "Natural Born Killers". What a cast! This had to be a fascinating project to undertake. I was particularly taken by Downey's very strong performance and am happy to say it is just as good as "Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang" and "Zodiac" and it is obvious he chooses his own roles. And wisely, I might add. This philosophical and drugged out story ultimately involves paranoid delusions, trust, questions of reality, fate, drug-induced mysticism…and what do we have here? A love triangle between Arctor and Barris over the beautiful Hawthorne. Well, at least they could have marketed it as a love story. Just kidding. The love story is a very human element and points out that these desperate psychonauts truly only want human compassion, understanding, a shoulder to cry on, and sex.

This is just the type of film I am surprised even gets made these days. I love it. You can watch for yourself to see where this whole psychedelic masterpiece ends up, but obviously it's not for everyone. But for those adventurous enough to add a little fiction to their science on a rainy day, this is a good prescription. Loved it…

As for the image quality, I certainly had no complaints. It looks great, a film this hallucinatory and visionary certainly deserves the best showcase, and you will be impressed. Very colorful and vibrant, and I didn't notice any issues at all. The perfect format for this new type of animation, which I hope will be used again for seemingly unfilmable novels. It looked great. It looked as good as I could possibly expect, to be quite honest.

In the sound department I also have no complaints, although a project with this many mind-bending sound effects and an excellent score by Graham Reynolds and Radiohead, which could have been an excellent excuse for Dolby True HD, but I'm nitpicking. A very wide sound field and the surrounds are used often on this excellent sounding Dolby Digital Plus track. It could be much better, though.

As for special features, first up we have a very insightful and extremely entertaining group with Keanu Reeves, Richard Linklater (writer/director), producer Tommy Pallotta, Author Jonathon Lethem, and Philip K. Dick's daughter Isa Dick-Hackett. This is one of those commentaries where everyone is passionate and involved. I was highly impressed with Reeves insight and knowledge of the material, he really knows his stuff when it comes to sci-fi and particularly Philip K. Dick, and the conversations often range into human behavior aspects and drug addiction in a no holds barred way that makes it a must listen. Fascinating.

'One Summer In Austin: The Story Of Filming A Scanner Darkly' runs about 26 minutes and is fascinating to watch because it shows the actual filmed versions of some of the scenes, and also because the actors and Winona seem to be having a blast working together. Judging from the look in their eyes, and the passion in their voices, they really went all out in filming this science fiction masterpiece. 'The Weight Of The Line: Animation Tales' shows us the painstaking and lengthy process involved in this fascinating animation process. It is great to watch, and runs about twenty minutes. We also have the excellent trailer, whish is very well done. All of the features, like the film itself, rise above the ordinary and are quite simply brilliant. All of the features are in standard definition.

"A Scanner Darkly" is easily the best Philip K. Dick movie ever filmed and I hope to see more films with this type of vision and bravery come out in the future. I was highly impressed, and the HD-DVD brings this head trip to home theatre like never before!