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A SCANNER DARKLY(director/writer: Richard Linklater; screenwriter: from the novel by Philip K. Dick; cinematographer: Shane F. Kelly; editor: Sandra Adair; music: Graham Reynolds; cast: Keanu Reeves (Bob Arctor), Robert Downey Jr. (Jim Barris), Woody Harrelson (Ernie Luckman), Winona Ryder (Donna Hawthorne), Rory Cochrane (Charles Freck); Runtime: 100; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Anne Walker-McBay/Tommy Pallotta/Palmer West/Jonah Smith/Erwin Stoff; Warner Independent; 2006)
“Linklater somehow makes coherent Dick’s incoherent visions.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This is writer-director Richard Linklater’s (“Slacker”/”Before Sunrise”) rotoscoped (animation process Linklater first used for Waking Life that interlocks live-action photography with uniquely hazy graphic software animations, thereby blurring the line between reality and hallucinations) take on Philip K. Dick’s 1977 classic futuristic counterculture novel, something he wrote from firsthand experience after getting hooked on speed and tranquilizers. Dick died of a stroke in 1980 at the age of 53. In 1972 Dick placed himself in a rehabilitation center in Southern California, and dedicated the novel “A Scanner Darkly” to his five Orange County doper friends who didn’t survive their bad acid trips and had their brains burn out from too much narcotics. They are named in the end credits as a lesson to others to be wary of getting hooked on drugs. Linklater’s faithful adaptation to Dick’s drug-related sci-fi story does justice to his dark visions better than any other film adaptation of Dick so far, including the successful versions like Blade Runner and Minority Report that pulled back from the full blast of Dick’s visions. In a seemingly impossible task that requires catching the real world in a hipster comic book style and making the tripping out druggies look anything but romantic, Linklater somehow makes coherent Dick’s incoherent visions. It relates the “war on drugs” to be as futile and corrupting an effort as is the present “war on terror,” which replaced the former in the paranoia the government is now throwing out to the public to keep them in fear so they relinquish their civil liberties for so-called protection.

The story is set in the near-future in Anaheim, California, and involves a reluctant government recruit spying on his friends in the absurd attempt to get the big supplier of a deadly drug that causes split-personalities called Substance D, which stands for all the bad things that start with D– such as death and depression. Keanu Reeves has the double role as the spy, being both the home owner drug user Bob Arctor and undercover Officer Fred, whose brain has become scrambled from dropping so many tabs of Substance D that he’s lost track of his identity and the undercover cop role might be his alter ego or it might be the other way around–he’s that spaced-out that he can no longer function but is still being used by the police to spy on his friends. Fred/Bob regularly reports to work in the police station to watch the surveillance tapes of himself interacting with the suspects, which results in the film’s title. Arctor, which rhymes conveniently with actor, pals around in his crash pad with hyper druggie jokesters Jim Barris (Robert Downey Jr.) and Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson), as well as with drug dealer Donna Hawthorne (Winona Ryder). Fred/Bob is trying to find out the Mr. Big who is her supplier and also has a romantic connection with her, but is stymied when she recoils in horror when he tries to touch her on a date and walks away cursing her when she nervously explains: “I have to watch it because I do so much coke.”

At one juncture, Fred speaks to the sympathetic Lions and Elks clubs about the “war on drugs” wearing a “scramble suit” to hide his identity, leaving him with a blurry unrecognizable image. In the middle of his talk, he loses track of himself and starts raving like an out-of-control junkie.

When Fred/Bob becomes a complete basket case, the film concludes with the police unable to use him anymore and he’s placed in group counseling and a live-in rehab program, but in his advanced veggie state he’s beyond the point of being helped.

It’s not that pleasant a film nor an easy one to come to terms with nor are the dramatics always effective, as it confuses by being too many different things from a bugged out futuristic sci-fi horror story to an almost preachy moralistic tale warning about the dangers of drug abuse to a ranting hipster jaunt down the comical noirish dark side of town. The beauty of the film is that despite all the characters being cartoonish and the story told comic book style, its serious intent cannot be questioned as that can clearly be seen by how it wails against this generations inability to connect with others, its loss of humanity due to an over reliance on chemicals and tech products, and with how fascism is creeping into the American way of life because our guard is down as we are led around by a fear campaign skillfully promoted by a government that has lost touch with reality just like the druggies they are tracking. REVIEWED ON 8/6/2006 GRADE: A-

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”