Friday, July 07, 2006

A Scanner Darkly - Movie Review

A Scanner Darkly 2006

While watching the latest flick by one of our favorite young directors, Richard Linklater’sA Scanner Darkly” – we came to the conclusion that the future is a terrible, terrible place to live. We should only pray for the Bird Flu or a Dirty Bomb to do us all in before we get there. Seriously, kids – name us one film set in the future that depicts a better existence. Can’t do it, can you? And you know why? Because despite the general consensus that life continues to improve with technological and medical advances – we all know that deep down in our cold little hearts, we are all on the path to destruction. Good times.

So why not go see an animated film concerning a fascist state that spies on its citizens, in particular those that are involved with a drug that is quickly overtaking their lives. Pure fantasy this film, we tell you. “A Scanner Darkly” is based on the novel by Sci-fi maestro, Philip K. Dick. It depicts a sub-culture of druggies addicted to “Substance D”, a drug that is highly addictive and destructive in nature but one that we never truly see manifest itself.

The government of the future is determined to crack down on the trafficking of “Substance D”, releasing undercover operatives that have infiltrated the culture and will hopefully lead them to the main dealers and manufacturers. Seemingly in conjunction with a support group labeled the “New Path” that rehabilitates users but who may have an agenda of their own. An agenda that our druggies fear more than the rampant hallucinations and dreamlike state they enter upon using “Substance D”.

All of this might have made for a mundane examination into drug culture and the police state of a hypothetical tomorrow, where it not so artfully handled by Richard Linklater and his team of animators. Yes, kids. Animators. Not the Disney or Pixar type, but a live action film in turn animated via rotoscope and run through a computer program and plunked out as a mass of wavering lines, flickering panes, paint by number fields of color – all of it intoxicatingly cinematic and visually absorbing. Our boy, Richard has used this process once before in his smart and fascinating “Waking Life” – an examination of the concept of “Lucid Dreaming”.

Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder star as the undercover agent and his main drug contact who skirt around the Orwellian constabulary and attempt to embark on a relationship. The only problem is that Keanu is slowly beginning to realize that his own drug use is taking over his thought process and he is becoming incapable of deciphering reality from his own dream state. It doesn’t help that Winona Ryder’s character is so deep into her own dependency . . . or is she? . . . that she is unwilling to fully engage in any relationship other than with her beloved “Substance D”.
Robert Downey Jr., who is either the bravest actor or most self-absorbed, portrays James Barris – a kinetic, fast talking, know-it-all whose drug dependency is second only to his ability to hold full conversations with himself. Constantly in motion, jerking reactions and elaborate mannerisms come streaming forth. His performance is the acting highlight of the film, one that is bizarrely less showy via the animation than it might have been in a live action flick.

Woody Harrelson, trips up our own preconceived notions about his real life by playing the ultimate stoner. And Rory Cochrane scores as the most drug addled of the group. His Charles Freck sees bugs and aliens crawling throughout his apartment and swarming over his body. The opening scene with his frenetic attempt to cleanse his body of the small invaders instantly drops us into the paranoid viewpoint of a drug abuser that has come to the end of his trip.

What we loved about this film is Linklater’s ability to create a unique visual world that works beautifully within the scope of the storyline. The finest example is the “Scramble Suit” deployed by the government agents to protect their identities. The suit envelops their bodies and systematically alters their appearance by a lightning fast scrambling effect: different races, sexes and even ages of random individuals flicker across the surface. While the suit is meant to protect their identities, it doesn’t take a prophet to figure out that some secrets will begin to unravel and their eventual realization is not going to please anyone.

We think Linklater was spot on for choosing to animate this bleak little Sci-fi, it echoes the unreality of his dismal future and adds a visual punch to the bedraggled lifestyle of the gang of druggy chums. The weakness of the film is the predictability of the scenario. When the big reveal arrives, it is less shocking than routine. The ultimate success of the flick is that it does not rely on shocking us. It wants to portray this oddball lot as victims of a drug culture that is never ending, personally devastating in its reach and doomed to continue. And isn’t that just what you’ve been craving too see all summer long? Well, when a film is made this well and manages to overcome the failed Sci-Fi routine handsomely, it should be! Bless you all!

Written & Directed by Richard Linklater
Based on the novel by Philip K. Dick

Keanu Reeves as Bob Arctor
Winona Ryder as Donna Hawthorne
Robert Downey Jr. as James Barris
Rory Cochrane as Charles Freck
Woody Harrelson as Ernie Luckman
Sean Allen as the Fred Scramble Suit Voice
Mark Turner as the Hank Scramble Suit Voice

Film Editing by Sandra Adair
Cinematography by Shane F. Kelly
Original Music by Graham Reynolds
Production Design by Bruce Curtis
Set Decoration by Joaquin A. Morin
Costume Design by Kari Perkins
Special Effects by Steve Krieger & Randy E. Moore
Visual Effects by Richard Gordoa


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