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A Scanner Darkly Review

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by Casimir Harlow Dec 17, 2006 at 12:00 AM

    A Scanner Darkly Review
    Philip K. Dick is probably best known for his novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” which was adapted for the Big Screen by Ridley Scott as the Harrison Ford sci-fi thriller, Blade Runner. He also wrote the novellas that Schwarzenegger/Verhoeven's Total Recall, Cruise/Spielberg's Minority Report and Ben Affleck/John Woo's Paycheck were based on. He has always created worlds where everything is not quite what it seems, with twists and turns in the story that often change the protagonists' very perception of himself (in a manner not wholly unlike his fellow sci-fi auteur Asimov). Now we get an interpretation of possibly his most personal - almost autobiographical - work, A Scanner Darkly.

    Set 7 years into the future, we find the U.S. plagued by a new drug, unimaginatively named Substance D. Operating on the hemispheres of your brain, it affects users from the very first pill they pop, and is extremely addictive, leading to hallucinations and, potentially, permanent brain damage. Officer Fred is an undercover NARC working for the Miami-Dade police, fighting to reduce the spread of Substance D. Since this is the future, undercover officers have the added advantage of absolute anonymity amidst their own. They wear a special Scramble Suit, an image-shifting full body suit that makes them impossible to distinguish from other undercover police also wearing such suits. This means that when they are actually undercover with their targets (and not wearing the Scramble Suit), the other officers monitoring them cannot recognise them. Sounds complicated? Not really, if you actually see them in action. It does, however, tend to lead to a certain amount of confusion, particularly for Officer Fred, who finds that his latest assignment involves monitoring himself - or rather his undercover alias, the drug addict Robert Arctor. Before long, this self-investigation makes him start to question his own identity, wondering whether Substance D is affecting him and, if so, to what extent.

    A Scanner Darkly is a rich character study of a group of drug addicts and an acute observation upon the world that they (and we) live in. As such, it makes for quite a poignant social commentary, in much the way that the original source material was intended to be (written in the seventies as a commentary on the drug/conspiracy/surveillance-heavy sixties). Whilst seemingly sticking closely to the book, it is heavily biased towards setting the correct atmosphere, and often lets the development of the story take a distinct back-seat. This results in a very watchable drama, but one which often feels more like a drug-hazed sit-com than a conspiracy-theorist's nightmare with wide-spreading implications.

    The participants include Keanu Reeves, in the lead role as Fred/Robert Arctor. He's on good form as the often spaced-out, often confused drug addict undercover cop giving the movie what is a very convincing performance, without lapsing into doing too much of his trademark exaggerated mannerisms. Robert Downey Jr. is, however, far superior, and on scene-stealing form as one of Arctor's even more paranoid flatmates, the scheming, over-analysing James Barris, who spends most of his time home-brewing drugs from common household substances and experimenting. I am glad that Downey Jr. has been brought back into the limelight, largely thanks to a lead performance in the Shane 'Lethal Weapon' Black-penned/directed Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and he certainly should have the requisite experience needed to put in a convincing performance as a paranoid drug addict. Winona Ryder is, well, Winona Ryder. Cute, ditzy, wacky, slightly random, but nonetheless utterly adorable. She plays Arctor's dealer, the elusive Donna, who seems strangely unattainable to all of her male friends/fellow users/clients. Again, she gives the impression of having some self-taught authenticity with respect to this role. As well as these three main leads, we also have Woody Harrelson, on suitably wacky form, and CSI: Miami's Rory Cochrane playing possibly the most psychologically affected of the bunch.

    Now, on to one of the most talked-about aspects of the production: the technology involved in the visual presentation of the movie. The catchphrase is rotoscoping, which basically involves filming the actors live on sets and then 'painting' over them digitally, and it gives the movie a very distinctive look and suitably disorientating, surreal feel. It works well for Philip K. Dick's material (in a similar way to how Rodriguez's massive use of green-screen worked to bring Frank Miller's glorious Sin City to life) but does, at times, smack of being a bit of a gimmick. The only major plot advantage to having this comic-effect is probably for the purpose of depicting the somewhat unnecessary Scramble Suit, although it does, as mentioned, allow the surreal atmosphere to go into overdrive.

    All in all, A Scanner Darkly would appear to be a very faithful interpretation of its source material, bringing to the Big Screen an involving tale of drug-induced paranoia and governmental over-surveillance with many different layers of subtext and social commentary. It features some decent performances for a well-chosen cast of core characters, some sharp, often blackly humorous dialogue and a very innovative, original form of visual presentation. Unfortunately it just did not completely work for me. The twists towards the end, eventually extending the scope of the plot to a much larger scale than before, seem a little clumsy, forced and rushed. In addition, the animation style did become slightly gimmicky after a while, particularly when you draw direct comparisons in some scenes between this and David Cronenberg's (also surreal) Naked Lunch, and find that other directors have been able to bring 'drug-hazed' worlds to life without the use of such extreme anim-action. Still, to some extent, it does work, and the end result is certainly a watchable, interesting and involving drama, which is likely to have you quite disorientated by the end of it.