Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey, Jr., Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder and Rory Cochrane.
Fred Arctor is an undercover cop—a narc—in a world where almost everyone is addicted to Substance D, a drug that produces split personalities in its users. “Fred” sets up an elaborate sting to nab a notorious drug runner named “Bob.” But when almost everyone is a D addict, and its makes you schizo, then how can one tell who’s really who? Especially when it comes to your personal identity, or whoever you are that day.
Phillip Kindred Dick: What is reality? The universal muse of the late sci-fi writer. Most if not all of his work wrangled with this question. As far as I know, three of his works have been translated to film. There was this little known work called Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? Later on the book was adapted for the screen, entitled Blade Runner. Maybe you’ve heard of it. The film was a real sleeper that eventually knocked the socks off of a generation of movie-goers that were too young to see said film in an actual theater. This seminal feature was a key example of Dick’s muse in action.
Later there was this Spielbergien effort called Minority Report that refused to generate the Hollywood dollars requiring it to be big hit, despite having Tom Cruise attached to it. It was another take on how Dick’s philosophy regarded human’s responses to seeing their potential future. Even though the film handily addressed the whole yin-yang of stimulus/response, it was awash in a sci-fi, crime caper guise that was too loud to let Dick’s voice be properly heard. It was still pretty good though, regardless.
Now we have this film, A Scanner Darkly.
Richard Linklater: What the hell is happening…ah, who cares? Indie darling of the mundane. All of his work has dealt with, or rather shrugged off this question. First there was Slacker, which garnered some attention, as well as a few honors. The follow-up Dazed and Confused, criminally ignored at the box office upon release, eventually repealing any critical scorn a full twenty years later to earn the Criterion Collection special treatment with double disc set with all the bells and whistles. It sold well.
All Linklater’s films tackle the human condition, usually in the form of ongoing dialogue reflecting his characters personalities despite them all being two-dimensional. His actors are generally reactive, only displaying any unique personality traits when in context with of other characters reactions. No one really initiates anything in his movies, only responds. His Waking Life is a ideal example of his oeuvre, where the “protagonist” spends the movie simply just listening to others speak about academic as well as pop philosophy. Linklater’s films seldom have a plot; they’re only interconnecting vignettes spliced with My Dinner With Andre-like commentary. Most are pretty good though, BTW.
And now this film, A Scanner Darkly.
Me: I streamed this? A humble yet snarky blogger of film criticism using free social media like a cheap, lazy podium upon which to spout prophetic about this culty film here and the failed blockbuster that. All of my work a big, smelly fart.
And yet this film, A Scanner Darkly.
The first thing that grabs you about this movie is that, “Hey! It’s animated! Woo-hoo! Bring on the dancing squirrels!”
Stop. Put down the pipe. There’s a bit more going on here. You may have to, regrettably, sober up. The thing is called “rotoscoping.” an animation technique in which animators trace over footage, frame by frame, for use in live-action and animated films, like this one. In other words, turning live-action into cartoons. Linklater conducted a brilliant job here. After the first half hour, if yer not rockin the ganja, the background blends into the foreground into an oily montage of shadows and strangely patterned textures (especially with the actors’ faces). It can get a little unsettling at times also, not mention just plain trippy. And honestly, I’m not so sure that the “scramble suit” or hallucinogenic sequences would’ve worked as well outside animation. In simpler terms, Scanner’s not a cartoon, but a graphic novel coming into life.
You regularly abstemious (look it up) users out there might have taken note of the phrase “the background blends into the foreground.” How rotoscoping works, at least by my by eye, is that you tend to look out for the still shots in the frame that unconsciously grounds you to the forescape of the moving characters. In simpler terms, Keanu seems more like Keanu when he’s got a background behind him, be it in the scramble suit or curling his arm around Donna/Audrey/Hank? That’s how I saw it. Then again, I had no access to Substance-D…
Keanu portrays undercover cop/dealer Fred/Bob. A narc/dealer trying to get to the bottom of a Substance-D ring in LA using a stealth “scramble suit” to infiltrate the dealer’s inner circle. Problem is twofold, Substance-D makes you schizo, but also heightens your sense of “reality,” depending on the circumstances. Fred/Bob hunts down the drug cookers in the form of the manic Barris (Downey) and paranoiac Luckman (Harrelson). Fred/Bob infiltrates their stupid ring. No, I mean stupid. These guys are idiots. How this pair failed to get shot out of general principle is beyond me. I mean, watch the bicycle scene, really. Get it? Good.
Regardless of Bob’s? Fred’s? Whoever’s deep cover, he becomes dependent, not addicted (there is a difference here) to Substance-D (to whit, this critic is unsure if the drug even exists) and drifts between a comfortable reality (work, girlfriend [Ryder], car), an uncomfortable reality (work, girlfriend, car) and a substitute reality (farm). WTF? And there’s some work, a female and a combine involved.
Or is there? Dun-dun-duuun. Goddam it Phil Dick…
Dick was never appreciated in his lifetime. He was more or less a cult writer. So much so that he had the dignity to die before Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? translated to the silver screen as Blade Runner. It became a beloved film decades after he got some common sense and kicked off. Him dying did great by his rep. Only Frank Herbert did somewhat better.
About the goddam movie. Visually, well, that’s the only trump its got going for it. There’s a very cool premise locked up in visual haberdashery (again, look it the hell up). Keanu is as wooden as ever. The only roles he seems to get stuck with is Neo, a Ted Logan clone, or a Neo clone. Or a Neo clone. He might be able to stretch (might be able to) if he’s taken out of the fantasy/sci-fi genre. He did pretty good in the goofy rom-com Something’s Gotta Give, hitting on Diane Keaton. But here he’s still stiff, struggling. So is Winona Ryder as Bob’s sorta girlfriend, who later turns out to be…ah, you’ll see it. Only the secondary characters of Downey, Harrelson and Cochrane do anything to spice up this film based almost solely on visuals.
I could go on, but this film committed the ultimate sin in my movie-watching mind: it bored me. Despite all the cool visuals, it was boring. It was like a stupid Michael Bay movie sans the big budget: lots of things to look at, and not much else. Listen Linklater, Waking Life was a bold, intriguing experiment, albeit not very cohesive. That was the point. I got that. This time out, continuity, acting and plot should’ve been the point. You culled from a very smart author whose works already translated to film quite handily. You already got your rewards, now try not to beat us over the head with the trophy.
Seven years from now…
Rent It or relent it?: Relent it. Take your time if you must. Watch it as a fan of Linklater’s, like me. Drink some espresso. You’ll need it. I figure if you go hunt down the book, like always, it’ll be more rewarding. Don’t fear, Dick’ll stay dead.
- Rory Cochrane: Linklater stalwart.
- “There is no sheep.” Thanks, Neo.
- Robert Downey, Jr.’s , manic delivery has worked for almost thirty years. Amazing. This schtick has never gotten old, and is malleable enough to fit into any type of film. I suppose that is what constitutes good acting.
- Hey! It’s Alex Jones! Hide yer wimmen’s uterus…
- Again, I’m not sure the “scramble suit” would’ve worked as well outside traditional animation. Nowadays, every animated film gets plucked off an iPad for seamless symmetry. The kaleidoscopic effect was so weird, so “primitive” that anything otherwise might have ruined the subplot if it were anymore refined.
Tom Cruise approaches Oblivion. As well as Tom Cruise.