WARNING: This review contains spoilers!
Based upon what may be Philip K. Dick's most personal novel, the film A Scanner Darkly is an awe-inspiring "science fiction" film directed by Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused and Waking Life). Linklater, who also wrote the screenplay, has done a remarkable job in staying as close as possible to Philip K. Dick's original story. In fact, out of all of the many films adapted or inspired by his work, A Scanner Darkly may be the most faithful. However, the film is far from flawless, but I'll get to the film's shortcomings later.
What helps A Scanner Darkly and keeps it from becoming cliché is the unique look and feel of the film. Using a sophisticated form of rotoscoping, which is the process of shooting live-action footage and then animating over it, Linklater aids the story giving the entire film a hallucinogenic quality. This highly stylized look at first feels gimmicky, as though Linklater was trying to exploit the current trend of adapting comic books and graphic novels to the cinematic medium, but after multiple viewings I realized that this story almost requires this visual treatment in order to give us greater insight into the characters' damaged psyches.
What hurts the film is its inaccessibility upon its first viewing. When I first saw the film, I found the rotoscoped imagery to be distracting and I felt that it overwhelmed the story. However, upon a second viewing I began to admire Linklater's decision to use the rotoscoping process and that it actually enhanced the film's visceral intensity. Now having seen the film numerous times, I can appreciate the artistry that went into its making. It's a challenging film, from both artistic and technical perspectives, but that's what makes it exceptional. It grows on you, not unlike an addiction.
In the very near future, where everyone is under government surveillance, the world's population is lost in haze of drug addiction and paranoia. Bob Arctor, a hapless yet likeable drug addict, lives with his two friends, Barris and Luckman, who are also drug addicts. Their drug of choice is the instantly addicting Substance D, which causes, among other things, paranoia, hallucinations, and multiple personality disorder. Bob, his roommates, and his girlfriend Donna spend most of their time engaged in ridiculous conversations about sex, pop culture, and conspiracies, which may or may not be real. But a rift begins to grow between these friends as their paranoid delusions lead them to distrust each other.
Meanwhile, an undercover narcotics agent named Fred is monitoring the group trying to find the source of the Substance D epidemic. There's only one problem: Bob Arctor and Fred are the same person, though neither of them are aware of it.
What drives the film, what gives it an emotional resonance and propels the narrative is its cast. The film features Keanu Reeves as Bob Arctor, Robert Downey Jr. as James Barris, Woody Harrelson as Ernie Luckman, Winona Ryder as Donna Hawthorne, and Rory Cochrane as Charles Freck. The entire cast is extraordinary, especially when you take into consideration how carefully they had to gauge their performances for the sake of the rotoscoping process. If it weren't for that process the acting would seem completely over-the-top, but in this case the intensity lends itself perfectly to the film's aesthetic quality.
I could go into great detail analyzing each actor's performance, but I'd much rather you see the film and come to your own conclusions. However, I will say that Keanu Reeves, whose monotone line readings and inexpressive facial features tend to undermine his abilities, gives a nuanced and multi-faceted performance that may be his best yet. Winona Ryder also gives one of her best performances in years, as does Woody Harrelson, who is lovably stupid as Luckman. Robert Downey Jr., who gives a manic energy to Barris, is startling in his intensity, which borders on psychotic. And Rory Cochrane is terrific as the drugged out, paranoid, schizoid Freck, who suffers from very bizarre hallucinations. As I've said, the cast is extraordinary.
A Scanner Darkly is a strange film that's difficult to describe. The film is amorphous and protean in its ability to shift from stoner comedy to thought-provoking science fiction, from social satire to darkly humorous character study.
The DVD special features include an audio commentary by Richard Linklater, producer Tommy Pallotta, Philip K. Dick expert Jonathan Lethem, Philip K. Dick's daughter Isa Dick Hackett, and Keanu Reeves, "One Summer in Austin: The Story of Filming A Scanner Darkly" documentary, "The Weight of the Line: Animation Tales" documentary, and a theatrical trailer.
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