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A Scanner Darkly (DVD)

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Caffeinated Clint
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Clint is the creator, editor and maintainer of Moviehole.

Notwithstanding the cult success of ‘Blade Runner’ (1982), Hollywood has always had an uneasy relationship with the works of late science fiction author Philip K Dick. Where his contemporaries such as Issac Asimov and John Wyndham tended to focus on the human condition or more cartoonish aspects of sci-fi, Dick was more preoccupied with a grimy, gritty, amoral and ambiguous future. Rarely did his stories come with a classic happy ending – hence the altered finale of ‘Minority Report’ (2002), for instance.


Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr, Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder

Notwithstanding the cult success of ‘Blade Runner’ (1982), Hollywood has always had an uneasy relationship with the works of late science fiction author Philip K Dick. Where his contemporaries such as Issac Asimov and John Wyndham tended to focus on the human condition or more cartoonish aspects of sci-fi, Dick was more preoccupied with a grimy, gritty, amoral and ambiguous future. Rarely did his stories come with a classic happy ending – hence the altered finale of ‘Minority Report’ (2002), for instance.

Thankfully director Richard Linklater (‘Tape’, 2001) has never been one to shy away from unconventional filmmaking and it’s hard to imagine a person better suited to tackle one of Dick’s most disturbing and unsettling works. In ‘A Scanner Darkly’, we are introduced to a near future where an increasing percentage of the population is addicted to a drug called Substance-D, which causes – among other things – paranoia and hallucinations. Keanu Reeves plays Bob Arctor, an undercover cop who has infiltrated a house it is hoped will lead his unit to the wider network of distributors. Hidden cameras are set up in the house and from time to time Bob heads back to the ‘station’ (he and his colleagues wear special morphing suits to hide their identities from everyone – including each other), where as ‘Officer Fred’ he tries to glean what information he can from the surveillance footage. But to be convincing in his role, Bob has been taking Substance-D – and it soon begins to mess with his brain, making it difficult to determine what’s real and what’s not. Confusion and a couple of twists lead up to the climax, which is both depressing and satisfying in a ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’ kind of way.

While it has the sturdy platform of Dick’s novel to stand on, the true strength of ‘A Scanner Darkly’ is its performances. Reeves has rarely if ever been in such good form, and Robert Downey Jr and Woody Harrelson are ideally cast as Bob’s sketchy motormouth and deluded stoner housemates. Linklater’s direction is also superb, allowing the actors to ad-lib within the bounds of their characters but also using a firm hand to keep the film on course.

One other thing: in the lead up to the release of ‘A Scanner Darkly’, much publicity has been given to the rotoscoping process, where animation is laid over live action film. I’m pleased to report the hoopla is warranted, in this instance anyway – the rotoscoping helps convey Dick’s unsettling vision of a drug-addled sub-reality. Much like the effects used in ‘Sin City’, rotoscoping puts the viewer’s brain in a weird kind of no-man’s-land, where it’s trying to reconcile the on-screen image with either live-action or animation but is unable to do either. Quite remarkable. Sadly, though, it’s a safe bet that the release of ‘A Scanner Darkly’ will be succeeded by a slew of mediocre movies that have been rotoscoped for no good reason, other than the filmmakers thought it was ‘cool’.

‘A Scanner Darkly’ is definitely not for everyone, in the same way a film such as ‘Trainspotting’ was not for everyone. This is not mass-market entertainment. It’s the sort of intelligent, inventive and courageous filmmaking that has all too infrequently been associated with Philip K Dick’s work. There’ll be the usual chorus of ‘This was boring’ and ‘I didn’t get it’ clogging the imdb message boards (not to mention the inevitable whining from some Dick purists) but any genuine connoisseur of film should add this to their must-see list immediately.

Extras include audio commentary by Keanu Reeves, director Richard Linklater, producer Tommy Pallotta, author Jonathan Lethem and Phillip K. Dick’s daughter Isa Dick Hackett, a ‘One Summer in Austin: The Story of Filming A Scanner Darkly’ documentary, a ‘Weight of the Line: Animation Tales’ featurette, and the trailer. Nothing amazing… but still worthwhile.

Rating :
Reviewer : Mark Bennett

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Clint is the creator, editor and maintainer of Moviehole.

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