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A Scanner Darkly

Written by: John Tuttle, special to CC2k


The film equivalent of downers 

WARNING: SPOLIERS AHEAD!

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Courtesy of Warner Independent

Admission: I’ve never read Philip K. Dick's A Scanner Darkly. I've also never seen Waking Life, Richard Linklater's other movie done in the same animated style.

I do admit to this: I saw a studio screener of Linklater's film adaptation of A Scanner Darkly — and I was bored.

PKD stories do not lend themselves well to the screen as it is: Blade Runner, Total Recall, Screamers.  The only reason Minority Report worked was that we had the writing talents of Scott Frank (Dead Again, Malice, Get Shorty) and the Spielberg Creative Package (Spielberg, Curtis, Mimica-Gezzan, Molen, Parkes and Kaminski).  Darkly tries to be as original as Blade Runner, imaginative at Total Recall and as socially poignant as Screamers.  Instead, it’s as slow as Blade Runner, as predictable as Total Recall, and as shallow as Screamers.

If I have been unsuccessful in deterring you from this film, be warned that spoilers are to follow.

From what I understand, Darkly has more plot than Waking Life (barely) but still does not capture the themes or deeper meanings in the novel.  The original novel, published in 1977, is said to be caustically funny, eerily accurate in its depiction of junkies and one of the deepest books PKD ever wrote:

“His ability to immerse the reader into the psychological heart of paranoid narcotics abuse has never been so apparent.” (Deckard, IO Film, 2003)

“…entertaining, funny… the ending of this book is satisfying. …the central concept of having an undercover cop investigate himself and bug his own house is a good sci-fi concept and makes for a good book.” (Eric Weeks, IF Magazine, April 1998) 

Linklater's movie is none of these things.

Seven years in the future.  Anaheim, California.  Fred (Keanu Reeves) is an undercover law enforcement agent who’s division speciallizes in complete immersement.  So much so that, to protect their identities while in the office, the agents must wear full body suits which randomly shift hair, eyes, ears, clothes, etc several times a second.  Bob Arctor (Reeves) is the drug dealer Fred is assigned to survey and eventaully bust.  Because the drug he deals, Substance D, causes schitophrenia, Fred doesn’t realize that he’s watching himself.  Or at least he’s not supposed to, as that doesn’t come across very well in the film.  Arctor lives with his freeloading buddies Barris (Robert Downey Jr.) and Luckman (Woody Harrelson) whom manage to keep Arctor company and in trouble. Arctor’s girlfriend, Donna (Winona Ryder), is the only stability left in Arctor’s wasted life which is ironic as she turns out to be Fred’s boss (remember the shifting suits?).  Ultimately, Arctor is declared unfit for his job and is sent to rehab for his addiction to Substance D.  Of course, the rehab center is just a front for growing, you guessed it, Substance D.

Darkly moves slowly and carries a big stick (I mean huge).  It’s one long stretch of exposition followed by a sort-of “oh” feeling.  This is fine if I’ve been laughing at your transvestite British humor for an hour and you’re still coming out for an encore.  This is boring if you’re a seemingly Flash-animated Keanu Reeves spying on yourself, getting hooked on drugs and ironically ending up in a rehab center that farms the drug you're addicted to.

This movie ought to be an intricate web of deception and schizophrenia accentuated by elaborate contrasts between hard-working America and the hallucinogenic imagery of freeloading addicts.  Instead we get stupid/uninteresting characters (with one exception), a predictable plot ("a paranoid journey into the absurd," as the online press kit says), and virtually non-existent themes.  What themes it has it beats into you with the aforementioned big stick in the form of monologues and voice-over (mostly delivered by Reeves, making them hard to listen to even if they weren’t badly written).

Even the abstract philosophical points I love about PKD come off trite and heavy-handed, like the way that guy at the bar knows he’s impressive quoting Shakespeare but has no idea what he’s saying.

So, why make this film animated?  Why not follow Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch and Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas? Darkly does want to be on the shelf next to these films.  Presumedly, animation gives Linklater the freedom to less expensively turn Barris (Downey) into a giant cockroach as Arctor (Reeves), hallucinates on the film’s nonexistant drug, Substance D.  The ossolating full-body suits that Arcter and his law enforcement collegues wear while in the office would be more expensive depicted live action.  Finally, and I may be giving this film too much credit, but animation reminds us in a very Brechtian way that this is not real.  Much like a dream or drug trip, we enjoy the distorted reality and then comfort that none of it actually happened.  My hope is the film was animated to reinforce the feeling of being on something.

Unfortunately, Darkly doesn’t go far enough.  If it’s going to be animated, really take us places we cannot go anywhere else but on drugs or in our dreams.  Apart from the three examples above, there is no other reason this film couldn’t have been live action with computer manipulation.  Arctor hallucinates that his girlfriend and a random girl he brought home are morphing back and forth while they are having sex (No, there is no awesome animated sex scene.  Go back to your Hentai anime).  An effect we’ve seen hundreds of times live action since before that beautiful, curly-haired girl shape-shifted for John Landis at the end of Black or White.  In its current edit, there is not reason for this film to be animated. 

I did like the only surprise in the film.  I admit, I did not expect Fred’s boss to be Donna.  I knew that loaded gun had to go off and if I hadn’t been so preoccipuied with finding the value or entertainment in the film, I might have realized that it couldn’t be anyone but Donna.  It was a nice twist.  Unfortunately, the only sucessful twist and the film doesn’t do anything with it.  She fights to allow Arctor to keep some semblance of a life after busting himself but ulitimately, she does very little after her big reveal.  Again another metaphor for the general problem with this film: not making the most out of what you have to work with.

I learned three things from this film:

One: Keanu Reeves, regardless of how many of his lines you cut, Mr. Branagh, the dazzling effects in which you surround him, Wachowskis, or even how much you paint over him completely in badly-executed animation, Mr. Linklater, he will always and only be Ted Theodore Logan.

Two: As long as she’s got a little more weight to her and is painted over completely in (badly-executed) animation, Winona Ryder is actually very pretty.

Three: Robert Downey Jr. is unstoppable.  If you see this movie, he will be why you see it.  Whether he’s a poster child for birth control in front of Rodney Dangerfield or the stupid guy to Val Kilmer’s stupid guy, no amount of badly executed animation can deter the awesome diversity and fun of Downey’s characterizations.  His performance as Barris in Darkly is another triumph.

If you would like to enjoy this film, please watch the trailer and fill in the rest.  This is a fantastic trailer.  Do not be drawn in by its flashy goodness (all puns intended).  Please do not spend money to see this film.  Find an Academy screener.  Borrow it from an unfortunate friend.  Illegally download it.  The latter would be most recommended as then at least you could have the satisfaction of emptying your digital trash right after dragging the 1.5 hours of your life you can never have back into the recycle.

Wait. I'm being way too harsh. I did recommend this movie to a friend of mine — who is addicted to cocaine and crystal meth.  She's done enough drugs to make Chia Pet-watching profound, so she should have no problem having her mind blown by A Scanner Darkly.

A Scanner Darkly is set to release July 7, 2006 (NY, LA, SF, Seattle, Boston; wider release: July 14; moderate release: July 28).

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Author: John Tuttle, special to CC2k

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