A Scanner Darkly
A Scanner Darkly is a movie based on the novel of the same name, by Philip K. Dick. I have never read the novel (or anything by Philip for that matter), but being a fan of science fiction and fantasy, I know that this author’s name rings bells in the science fiction community (think Asimov, Bear, Clark, etc.).
So I admit that I did enter into this movie with preconceived notions…I thought it was going to be good, like one of those overlooked movies that’s excellent but a lot of people haven’t seen, like Mirrormask (later I learned that this movie grossed about $5 million at the box office and won many film critics’ awards)
Well, I was wrong.
Based on a popular novel (that by all accounts is simply excellent), written by a popular novelist (circa 1960s-70s, but now a legend), and starring the likes of Robert Downey Jr., Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder among others; you would think that this movie would be, if not excellent, at least palatable. But what do you get?
That’s right; this may have been one of the most boring movies I have ever watched. I’m not throwing stones at the original work, the novel, because I have never read it, and by all accounts it is a must read for any fan of the genre; you know, a real piece of literature. I could even see myself really enjoying the novel after watching this movie, but the movie itself just doesn’t work for me.
Why? Well, I’ll tell you.
The visual style. Richard Linklater, who wrote the movie’s screenplay and directed it, is not a new name. He’s written and/or directed such movies as Before Sunset, Bad News Bears (2005), and the School of Rock just to name a few. Well, he decided to use animation and a technique called interpolated rotoscoping (which is animating over live action).
Now, you have probably seen rotoscoping before but didn’t know what you were looking at. It’s used in those old Superman Cartoons, Snow White, and even Monster House. There’s nothing wrong with this technique in and of itself. Even in the examples I named it seems organic, natural. But in A Scanner Darkly it looks hyperartificial. Sort of like a video game from the PS2 age.
Sometimes you can even tell when it phases from pure animation to the rotoscoping animation and it’s a little hurtful to the eye. This movie would have worked better either fully animated or live action, this in-between thing they did just annoys the hell out of your eyes. This style of filmmaking would have worked if there was more action but it seems wasted on a bunch of junkies sitting around talking about nothing.
Which brings us to…
The plot. The plot revolves around a narcotics agent, Fred (Keanu Reeves) doing a sting on a group of supposed drug traffickers. He lives in the same house as them, trying to figure which one of these junkies is the real threat. What do they do? Well, they get high on Substance D (a psychedelic drug that does more to your brain over time than the usual constant exposure to chemical toxins), and they act like fiends (trust me, I know how fiends act). But the twist is that Fred and his counterpart that lives in the house, Bob, are actually one and the same and neither he nor anybody else seems to be aware of this fact.
So is our narcotics agent an addict himself? That’s the question you are expected to ask yourself while watching, or staring, at this movie. I would like to give more details but I expect some of you would like to see this film despite what I say, so I don’t want to give out any spoilers. Feel free to get it the best way you know how and form your own opinion, the critics loved it and many other people did too.
All in all, I realized several things while watching this film that makes me want to read the book. The themes (duality of our own realities and psychological profiles and drugs in America as an ongoing endemic even into the future) are here in the film, but don’t really come off the right way. I expect it’s all there in the actual book. It’s definitely not all here in this movie.
The story itself, based on Philips own struggle with drugs, is considered by some to be his darkest tale. I wonder what he would have thought of the film if he was alive.
Philip K. Dick – RIP – 12/1928 to 03/1982
A Scanner Darkly (1st draft, 20 Dec, 1997)
This unproduced interpretation of the Philip K Dick novel was eventually vetoed, in favour of Richard Linklater’s own adaptation. Kaufman’s draft is very faithful to the source material.
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