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A Scanner Darkly (Mark's Take)

01/08/2006. Contributed by Mark R. Leeper

Buy A Scanner Darkly in the USA - or Buy A Scanner Darkly in the UK

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Richard Linklater adapts one of Philip K. Dick's less cinematic novels into a rotoscoped, animated film. The approach is creative, says Mark, but it still does not overcome the problems of bringing such a contemplative novel to the screen. This becomes just a bland paranoia melodrama set in a very contemporary drug culture. An interesting effort, but it does not work as a film.

Rating: 0 (-4 to +4) or 4/10

Philip K. Dick was an amazingly imaginative writer, but he was a long way from being a poster child for mental health week. He gave over his life to being ruled by the I Ching and then when he did not like the results turned violently against the I Ching. Similarly he took way too many drugs and hated the government for trying to regulate them, but then turned against the drugs themselves. His novel A SCANNER DARKLY is both anti-drugs and anti-anti-drugs. He hates the fictional drug Substance-D, but still vilifies the tactics of the government to suppress the drug.

These represent the drugs that Dick himself first embraced and later blamed for his problems that they had caused, all the while hating the government efforts to control them. In fact he was the beneficiary of a policy that generally went after the producers, even if they were in other countries, and emphasized much less prosecuting the users. The final words of the film are a list of Dick's friends who damaged or destroyed their lives on drugs. They were punished far worse than they deserved, or so he claims. I can respect Dick as a writer, but much of his logic seems tragically flawed. Richard Linklater (BEFORE SUNRISE, THE SCHOOL OF ROCK) has made a film of Dick's A SCANNER DARKLY as a rotoscoped animated film much in the visual style of his WAKING LIFE.

Keanu Reeves plays narcotics officer Bob Arctor. His job is to go under cover and spy on some particular users of a new drug, Substance D, that nearly everybody seems to be using. So why these particular users? The stoners are the garrulous Jim Barris (Robert Downey Jr.) and rather oblivious Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson). Donna Hawthorne (Winona Ryder) also hangs around with the group but makes clear her friendship is definitely platonic. Bob, who goes by the name Fred, has scanners all over the house they live in so that their every move is watched.

He passes himself off as one more stoner, though he tries to limit his drug use and is on the knife-edge of becoming addicted himself. Through it all we realize that the Government is bad; the drug users are bad; everything is bad, bad, bad. We stick with these people because we are expecting the story to go someplace interesting. It all builds to two major revelations, but neither has much surprise value. The story works only if you are interested in seeing a paranoid view of life in the drug culture.

The animation could have been a good idea, but in this adaptation it is definitely a mixed blessing. It becomes a distraction from the story itself. For example we see a police car stop, but the word "Police" on the side seems to move a little out of sync with the rest of the car. Perhaps this is intentional to simulate a drug state or simply to convince people that this is what a drug state is like. Important in the plot is something called a "scramble suit" that subtly changes the wearer's appearance so that the wearer is inconspicuous and cannot be described by witnesses.

This is the one really engaging science fiction idea in the story and apparently Linklater entirely misses the point that the changes are subtle. He has the animated version rapidly flashing different appearances like something from a Bill Plympton "Plymptoon". This flashing of different visages is highly distracting and renders the wearer nearly as inconspicuous as a hippopotamus parade. If the government had merely wanted the wearer to be unrecognisable better disguise technology already exists to make the wearer appear to be Darth Vader or perhaps Ronald McDonald.

Okay, I admit it. Films about drug paranoia and anti-government paranoia--even science fiction films on those subjects - are not my favourite entertainment. There are Dickian ideas I like, but this film is surprisingly lacking in them. In the dark of a theater there are better films to scan.

I rate A SCANNER DARKLY a 0 on the -4 to +4 scale or 4/10.

Mark R. Leeper

Copyright 2006 Mark R. Leeper

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