A Scanner Darkly

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A Philip K. Dick-ian rotoscoped drug nightmare of the near future, starring Robert Downey Jr. and some other people.

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Richard Linklater, 2006

I’ve been wanting to see this movie for a while.  I’ve read a couple of Dick novels, inlcuding “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” for a university class (the first time I saw and was disappointed by Blade Runner) but I don’t think I’ve seen a Dick movie I really liked yet.  I kind of enjoyed Total Recall (for the campy fun), The Adjustment Bureau (but the ending let me down), and Minority Report (Tom Cruise.  Yeah.) but none of them, I felt, captured that drug-fuelled paranoia that’s a hallmark of his work.  A Scanner Darkly, in contrast to the aforementioned films, essentially drops all the scifi hallmarks to focus almost entirely on that theme; the world inhabited here is almost the same as our own, with one exception: a highly drug called Substance D (and the measures brought in to wage war against it).  According to RDJ’s James Barris, “There’s no weekend warriors on the D.  You’re either on it, or you haven’t tried it.”

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For those not in the know, rotoscoping animation is done by tracing over shot footage.  It gives this film an eerie surreal quality, which works both in its favour and against it.  It mutes the performances somewhat, removing you from the intensity of the action – which in some ways might be a good thing, given how terribly these people act some of the time.  But they’re also occasionally funny and essentially human, facts which may have been better served by live action than animation.  Having said that, I doubt there’s been a better visual representation of drug addiction on screen – there are some vivid hallucinations that are animated right over real performances, giving it that hyperreal but disconnected sensation that you get when you’re chemically affected.  There’s also this brilliantly realised concept of “scramble suits”, thin outfits which project images of millions of different people when worn, essentially rendering the wearer completely anonymous.

The performances are pretty solid – maybe it’s the rotoscoping, but Keanu Reeves is less wooden than usual as the undercover cop who goes in too deep, and the other actors are all pretty solid.  RDJ, of course, is terrific – given what he’s gone through, perhaps unsurprisingly.  His Barris is the charismatic, paranoid centre of the group, rambling at a mile a minute, exhausting both physically and mentally.  He’s cruel, funny, and clever, and RDJ comes shooting through the rotoscoping with remarkable clarity.  Winona Ryder is pretty good too, her role shifting like the others.  The thriller element works well within the confines of drug-addled psychosis, too, and there are some darkly funny moments.

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This is definitely a thinky movie, rather than an entertaining one, but it’s also engrossing.  The solution is complex, but understandable enough if you’re paying attention.  It’s a worthwhile watch, but not a fun one.

A Scanner Darkly on IMDb

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