For decades, Philip K. Dick has been the science-fiction author Hollywood most hip to plunder. Minority Report, Total Recall, and Blade Runner took off from Dick stories, with each adding its own considerable embellishments. Now writer-director Richard Linklater brings a new novelty to a Dick adaptation: fidelity to the source.
In adapting Dick's 1977 futurist tale from the counterculture A Scanner Darkly, Linklater employs the rotoscoping animation technique of Waking Life. The approach renders special effects a non-issue and heightens the unreliable objectivity of the story about drug-dealers, cops, and elusive identity "seven years from now." Linklater casts Matrix-star Keanu Reeves as Bob Arctor (if that is his real name...), a confused Anaheim cop whose deep-cover as a drug dealer starts to get to him, no less in the office than in the field.
Bob's target is a big-fish source of a brain-frying illegal narcotic known as Substance D. In his "straight" life of office confabs and PR lectures, Bob must wear a "scramble suit" designed to obscure his identity, even from his boss. For security reasons, no one but Bob knows which of the dealers, junkies, and wiggers in Bob's half-authentic "social" circle is, in fact, Bob. In fact, it's probable that Bob isn't always entirely sure, since Substance D's primary side-effect is to rend one's personality in two. Adding to the schizoid effect, Arctor's job unnervingly requires him to spy on himself via the operation's video surveillance.
Robert Downey, Jr.—our greatest natural resource, once more tripping the syllable fantastic—plays Jim Barris. A speedy freak with diarrhea of the intellect, Barris loves siccing head-trips on mental midgets and thinks nothing of cutting his hair with safety scissors while saying to no one in particular, "This is a world getting progressively worse. Can we not agree on that?".
With tools like Downey, A Scanner Darkly effectively redistributes much of Dick's dry sarcasm and fatalism. The author's crafty dialogue and monologue suit Linklater's verbose style, and flow naturally from the left-of-center supporting cast. Woody Harrelson and Rory Cochrane play the dim-bulb philosophers in the sway of Barris' alpha-junkie center of gravity. Winona Ryder is Donna Hawthorne, the surprisingly together dealer who swears off D but claims to do too much coke to be touched by the ardent Arctor. Walking the film's information-superhighway center line, Reeves plays a man trying in vain to act like himself by channeling the star's essential blankness into existential despair.
Dick and Linklater share an understanding of the surface, the underbelly, and the arrhythmic heart of the drug culture, which Bob notes, numbly, is "starting to get bad." Paranoia and irrationality are assumed, and emotional and philosophical satisfaction are more tantalizing and more slippery than in the straight world. Dick understood that the drug culture was a long con that lured in the best minds of his generation; like the novel, the film ends with an honor roll of drug casualties.
Somehow superior and unsatisfying at once (the glib music, by Graham Reynolds, does Linklater no favors), A Scanner Darkly threatens to be as intangibly remote as its subject; as a perhaps inevitably awkward tragicomedy of disconnect, the film has a somewhat dull edge to its entertainment value. Ultimately, slowly, A Scanner Darkly pulls into a frightfully reoriented space with the hope that, after a spell, we can pull out again. A Scanner Darkly remains a haunting cautionary tale about the fragility of the mind; both the story and its engine prove more than the sums of their sparks.
Warner's new reissue of A Scanner Darkly on Blu-ray is identical to the last pressing; it's just being repromoted with a mostly new-to-Blu wave of science-fiction titles. The hi-def picture quality is perfection, perhaps not surprising given the digital source: colors are bold and true, and the image is clean and razor-sharp. The audio remains a disappointingly lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 that's functional but not terribly immersive and no improvement over the DVD: this mix will have home-theater audiophiles sighing.
In bonus features is an intriguing audio commentary with actor Keanu Reeves, writer/director Richard Linklater, producer Tom Pallotta, author/historian Jonathan Lethem, and Phillip K. Dick's daughter Isa Dick Hackett; the oddball group comes together to discuss the film's origins, production, and themes, as originally conceived by Dick and interpreted by Linklater.
"One Summer in Austin: The Story of Filming A Scanner Darkly" (26:25, SD) does a nice job of giving a well-rounded look at the source material and its adaptation, incorporating as it does vintage interviews with Dick as well as contemporary interviews with Linklater and his cast and crew.
"The Weight of the Line: Animation Tales" (20:46, SD) puts the focus squarely on the animation process.
Also on hand is the film's "Theatrical Trailer" (1:59, SD).
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