A Scanner Darkly
One of the best things about science fiction is its ability to challenge every aspect of reality. To paraphrase the opening of the Outer Limits sci-fi can take us from the inner most depths of our mind to the farthest reaches of the universe. One sci-fi writer who specialized in the inner journey and examining the relationship of man to reality was Philip K. Dick. From his fertile mind came such great works as ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’, the basis for the cult classic, ‘Blade Runner’. Here he brought his critical eye to the question of what is human. Now, another of his novels has been brought to the screen retaining the imagination of the original, ‘A Scanner Darkly’. With this work Dick considers the effects of long term drug abuse have on the way human beings not only relate to the world but how they perceive reality. Like most of Dick’s works this is a dark look at a subject with no resolution. Dick wrote this story from his own personal experiences with drugs. In fact the end credits include a list of close friends that succumbed to addiction or abuse of drugs.
Set some seventeen years in the future the war on drugs is being lost. The police are employing every technological ploy possible to get a handle on the ever growing problem of drug addiction. New on the scene is a drug called Substance ‘D’. It is more addictive than any drug that came before. As one user muses there are no weekend warriors here only people that use and those that have never tried it. In the trenches of the ongoing war against drugs is Office Fred (Keanu Reeves). His assignment is to go deep under cover to work his way up to the main supplier of ‘D’. To this end Fred takes on the persona of Bob Arctor, a ‘D’ addict. Thanks to a new technology not even his superiors know who Fred is on the streets. When he is not with his druggie friends Fred wears a ‘scramble suit’ which distorts how he is seen by the world by randomly project different faces and body types. As Bob, Officer Fred has surrounded himself with a motley crew of losers. There is Freck (Rory Cochrane), who thinks insects have invaded his body, Barris (Robert Downey Jr.), a prankster who gets off on pitting the police against others in the drug trade and the hapless Luckman (Woody Harrelson) who due to the effects of the drugs is more furniture than roommate. There is also Donna (Winona Ryder), a coke head and occasional ‘D’ dealer; nominally the girlfriend of Luckman although Bob has a thing for her. As Bob lives with these people he finds himself addicted to ‘D’ and his hold on reality slipping away. When he is brought in by his superiors and assigned reviewing surveillance tapes he finds himself looking at his alter ego. Substance ‘D’ has the effect of causing the two hemispheres of the brain to function independently. This leaves Fred unable to differentiate who is the real him, Fred or Bob.
This is a film that does have its flaws but overall it is one of the truest transfers from novel to film of a Dick story since Blade Runner. After seeing so much of this man’s work condensed and diluted it is great to see something that actually resembles the book. Much of the dialogue is nearly incomprehensible. Considering the setting this is perfectly okay. These are people reduced to the lowest cognitive abilities and you shouldn’t expect much of what they say to make sense. Scanner is dark and disturbing, exactly what came across from the pen of Mr. Dick. This is a cautionary tale not only about substance abuse but about how the authorities can brush away civil rights in the pursuit of the ‘greater good’. At the core of this story is just what reality is. As Fred/Bob becomes more affected by the drug he has to question everything that most people use to stay grounded. His memories may only be drug induced fantasies, is he a police officer masquerading as a druggie or a druggie who thinks he is a police officer. There is no stable point left in Fred’s live to anchor him to the reality that others take for granted. Dick’s recurring theme of how technology alters man’s perception of the world is aptly handled here. When you consider something like the ‘scramble suit’ you have a piece of technology that completely removes a person from his own identity.
There has been a lot said about the way this film was presented. It utilizes a technique called interpolated rotoscope. With this technique the movie is shot in the usual way and then each frame is animated, drawn over by the rotoscoping process. The result as seen here is a strangely surreal effect. This is actually perfect considering the film is about the alteration of perception. The animation is disturbing, keeping the audience off balance every moment of the film. The unsettling presentation helps to pull the viewer into an unsure world where nothing you see is as you expect it to be. One potential draw back here is the facial characteristics of the actors are somewhat muted. Again, this works in the context set, people are just the masks they present to the world.
This is an excellent cast and as most will realize more than a couple of actors here have had some first hand experience with drug abuse. Keanu Reeves may be often criticized for a limited emotional range in his portrayals. With this film he has found a vehicle where his character is burnt out and almost devoid of normal human interaction. He nails the confusion and uncertainly of Fred/Bob perfectly. Woody Harrelson is little more than part of the set here as the slacker Luckman. He offers some comic relief in the tradition of Sean Penn’s Spicoli. He may be a stoner and a waste of a human life but he is comic relief. Two actors on the comeback trail after a little time off for legal problems are Robert Downey Jr. and Winona Ryder. Downey captures his character with ability and talent. Ryder gives one of the better performances of her career here.
Warner Brothers presents the DVD release of this film with a nod to Philip K. Dick fans. The video is an anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer which renders the colors and contrast as ture as possible considering the format. The Dolby 5.1 audio surrounds the room pulling you further into this strange, dark world. There is a round table audio commentary track featuring Keanu Reeves, Writer/Director Richard Linklater, Producer Tommy Pallotta, Author Jonathan Lethem and Philip K. Dick's Daughter Isa Dick Hackett. They explore not only the technical challenges presented in making the film but also some background on the original novel. The making of featurette, ‘One Summer in Austin: The Story of Filming A Scanner Darkly’ details the way the cast and crew had to change their understanding of film making to create this film. There is also a look at how intensive the rotoscoping process was. It took over 500 man-hours to create on minute of film. As Linklater explains they basically had to shoot the film twice; once to get the real images and then again to make sure the animation was consistent and reflected what he wanted to show. This is an unusual film that will inspire a lot of conversation. It is a must for fans of the late Mr. Dick and a perfect introduction to his work for the rest of you out there.