Monday, January 08, 2007


Movie of the week:

Writer, Philip K. Dick, in his later years, suffered from paranoia and (perhaps) a touch of schizophrenia, most likely brought on by continued drug abuse. These themes permeated his writings in such stories as “VALIS”, “Martian Time Slip”, and the basis for this week’s movie, “A Scanner Darkly”. A common theme is a main character who discovers that his reality is an illusion which peels away layer by layer (e.g. “We Can Remember That For You Wholesale” – which was made into the film Total Recall).

This adaptation is very faithful to the book. Those of you who’ve read the book are probably wondering how the hell that is possible, and then thinking that this film must be very hard to follow. And to that I say, “What’s to follow? Just roll with it.” Now, this movie could have ended up a mess of wandering dialog and random disjointed scenes with no structure and an unfathomable plot, except that the film-maker, Richard Linklater, made a number of smart creative decisions.

One, he decided not to mess with the script – in other words, let the book stand on its own. The film follows the book’s plot and dialog very closely. This includes the characters’ drug induced paranoia, their sometimes drug induced attempts at conversation, based on drug induced logic (or lack thereof), and the characters’ sometimes uncertainty about what is real and what is drug induced. This decision could have been a big mistake, except for number two.

Two, he chose a perfect cast. Keanu Reeves as Robert Arctor, the drug addicted narc. He can exude a perfect befuddled persona (reminiscent of his Bill & Ted roll). Robert Downey Jr. is the know-it-all Barris who, if he wasn’t strung out on drugs, would be dangerous. Woody Harrelson is the good-hearted, but not too smart druggie, Luckman. And Winona Ryder as Donna, sometimes drug dealer and sometimes Arctor’s girl, or at least he’d like to think so. They’re all convincing stoners, every last one of them, yet in spite of that, they have the most amazing conversations. They’re totally whack, but they're amazing. Like WC Fields, Peter O’Toole, and Dudley Moore who can portray such classic drunkards, this cast plays captivating stoners. Still – this could have reverted to standard stoner movie fare, except for number three.

Three, Linklater uses a roto-scope process. This is a technique whereby animators draw over live action footage – frame by frame. It’s a painstaking process but the result is a startlingly eerie atmosphere. The characters look exactly like their real-life counterparts, but the film-maker can add or distort reality to his whim. Linklater uses this freedom to visually depict the hallucinatory ever-shifting reality the characters habituate. Roto-scoping has been used in the past – even Richard Linklater used it in his 2001 film Waking Life. However, here, the effect is used to enhance the narrative, not just as a cool effect.

A SCANNER DARKLY is worth noting for these reasons.

  1. Philip K Dick based this story on his own drug experiences. Dude – how did he ever survive? I believe that the Robert Downey Jr. character was really Dick.
  2. Is it animated or is it live action? You can think about that for a long time - in a drug induced state.
  3. It’s really good.
  4. Good sci-fi is hard to come by these days. You can throw a ton of money at a project and end up with a piece of crap like The Island, or you can concentrate on compelling ideas and expend your energies telling a good story.
  5. Richard Linklater has an impressive portfolio which includes Slacker, Dazed and Confused, and The School of Rock, as well as some of my past recommendations such as the romance films Before Sunset and Before Sunrise.
  6. Keanu Reeves plays an undercover narcotics agent who is so deep under cover that not even his superiors know his identity. Not even he’s sure of his identity. This is pure PK Dick.
  7. Half the world seems to be addicted to the drug known as “substance-D”. Who is supplying it – that’s the question. Is there a huge conspiracy? It may be the government. It may be Martha Stewart – who knows? Nobody knows. In fact, nobody knows what they don’t know. This is also typical PK Dick.
  8. The “Scramble Suit” concept is freaky. Roto-scope is probably the only way it could have been depicted. Still if you look at it too long, you'll go nuts.
  9. This is a funny movie – when it’s not being dark and ominous and creepy.
  10. It’s fun to watch people when they’re out of their minds.

Drop a few Tabs (the diet soft drink – not drugs) and watch A SCANNER DARKLY.



At 9:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This has to be the WORST movie ever made! It has no plot no point and the ending leaves you witout any resolutions. The rotoscoping is much improved from waking life but still calls too much attention to itself and distract you from the story. The movie is probably better if you turn the sound off and put your own mp3 track to the visuals..... really did this movie even need dialog? I still have no idea what the plot was about and the story telling is as sketchy as artwork. Really this would have been a good 10 minute short but two hours of swimmy animation makes you a bit sea sick....

At 5:02 PM, Blogger Jan said...

Wow, totally opposite reaction here from Anonymous. I thought it was very well-done. Maybe it's different if you've read the book and have a feel for what's going on. It was a terrific treatment of the story -- part of the point is that the main character doesn't really know what's going on, and if the movie made you feel that way... that's actually good :)


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