A Scanner Darkly Review

A Scanner Darkly is an adaptation of a 1977 novel by Philip K. Dick, one of the most influential writers of Science Fiction in the 20th Century. It concerns an undercover police agent, Bob Arctor/Fred (Keanu) who is sent to spy on a house of drug-users. Arctor is anonymous to his superiors, a requirement of the force to insure against corruption. Although Arctor is meant to be observing, he finds it necessary, as part of his cover, to become a user himself and he becomes addicted to Substance D, a mind-altering drug. The results of this are an encroaching paranoia and confusion of identity.

Like much of his work, it has an autobiographical element, coming out of a period during the early 1970s that he spent living with a group of teenage drug-users. It also seems to relate back to his paranoia which led him to believe that secret government agencies were plotting against him and, subsequently, that he was plotting against himself but forgetting that he had done so. Richard Linklater’s adaptation of the novel is faithful to the original although some Dick fans have complained that it overdoes the druggie humour. But I think it captures the original quite brilliantly, mixing black comedy with psychological terror and evoking a world in which not only is there no such thing as objective reality but where even subjective reality is open to question.

There are already two excellent reviews of A Scanner Darkly on DVD Times, both by writers with considerably more knowledge of Science Fiction than I possess. I therefore strongly recommend that anyone interested in the film should read the cinema review by Roger Keen and the R3 DVD review by Gary Couzens.

My own view on the film is that it is as bold and daring a work as Richard Linklater has yet produced. He was certainly the perfect filmmaker to tackle the book given the interests in philosophy, Gnosticism and subjective reality that were brought to the fore in his previous rotoscoping experiment, Waking Life. The drug-addled comedy is also something with which he is comfortable, the performances of Rory Cochrane and Woody Harrelson coming in a direct line from those in Dazed and Confused. He understands the black humour behind Dick’s work and the trenchant ironies – the most brilliant being the way in which the flowers that produce Substance D are harvested by recovering addicts. He also understands that Science Fiction is far more about ideas and questions than it is about lasers and spacecraft and, as such, A Scanner Darkly is as pure a piece of SF cinema as we’ve seen for some time. It also manages, like a lot of good work in the genre, to comment on our own times while being notionally set in the future.

There are certain flaws, some of them inherent in the original material. The communities depicted are very insular and if you’re not part of them, it can be hard to get involved and, perhaps, sufficiently care. Freck’s miserable life is shoved right in our face at the start before we’ve come to know him or why he’s behaving in such a way and some may find this alienating. On a filmmaking level, I’m not entirely sure about the casting of Keanu Reeves. He does pretty well but he seems very limited – the line “Let’s hear it for the big blur” seems all too apt - and he’s certainly not how I pictured the character – but then no-one has ever caught a Philip K. Dick ‘hero’ in a way which I find satisfying. However, acting honour is restored by the superb supporting cast, amongst whom Robert Downey Jr. stands out as the deeply unpleasant but absolutely fascinating Barris, the kind of friend who makes you prefer your enemies. On a positive note, I also want to mention the final shot which is quite astonishingly moving.

The Disc

Warner’s R2 release of A Scanner Darkly is identical in content to their releases in other regions and, judging by what I’ve read, seems to be the same in terms of the quality of the transfer.

The 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer is flawless and, given the digital origins, this is how it should be. I can’t think of anything to say about this except it’s just about perfect. The 5.1 soundtrack is also very impressive with the beautifully ethereal music score by Graham Reynolds standing out.

In terms of extras, there are two featurettes, a trailer and a commentary track. The commentary is a group affair with all the participants in one room and, consequently, a feeling that some of them might as well have stayed at home. Linklater does a lot of the talking but it’s also nice to hear comments from Dick’s daughter, Isa Dick Hackett. It’s a somewhat dry track without the joking around so prevalent in commentaries of this type, but it’s intelligent and offers a lot of information about the author and how his work translates onto the screen.

The featurettes are brief but interesting, particularly the 20 minute piece on the rotoscoping process called “The Weight of the Line”. The technical challenge posed by the film was obviously astounding and it’s fascinating to see the process explained. The making-of piece, “One Summer In Austin”, isn’t as compelling since it consists of a love-in between director and actors, but the behind the scenes footage is worth a look.

The film and featurettes have optional subtitles. An audio descriptive track in English is also available.

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