A Scanner Darkly

Starring: Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr, Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder and Rory Cochrane
Warner Home Video
RRP: 17.99
Certificate: 15
Available 22 January 2007

What does a scanner see? Into the head? Into the heart? The time: just beyond now. The place: Suburbia. The story: a twisted, funny tale of people hooked on Substance D. And of a government that cheerfully destroys its citizens - their rights, their relationships - in order to save them. Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder and Rory Cochrane play strung-out friends terrified of each other and of spies. Keanu Reeves plays a spy who's also one of the friends... until his two personalities begin to split. Enjoy the paranoia. Nobody's watching you. Really...

A Scanner Darkly is based on the novel by Philip K. Dick - the sci-fi legend whose works-to-film include Blade Runner, Total Recall and Minority Report.

America in the near future has lost the war against drugs. Paranoia reigns as two out of every ten Americans have been hired by the government to spy on the other eight in the name of national security and drug enforcement. Enter Bob Arctor, a reluctant undercover cop recruited by the government. To maintain his cover, Arctor regularly ingests the popular Substance D. The drug has caused Arctor to develop a split personality. Arctor's superiors set up a hidden holographic camera in his home as part of a sting operation. A Scramble Suit that changes his appearance allows Arctor's identity to be kept a secret from his superiors. The camera in Arctor's apartment reveals that his friends regularly betray one another for the chance to score more drugs.

The movie is as relevant now, with the current administration in the USA, as it was when Dick first penned it in 1977. Working on so many levels, the narrative is about so many different issues that are, and could become in a short space of time, problematic in the way a "free" society restricts its citizens in order to create a false feeling of freedom. In a world where security cameras are increasing and governments are trying to push through laws that allow them to detain anyone they like, for as long as they like, without explaining why (pretending that it is all in the cause of preventing terrorism) all of a sudden the ideas in A Scanner Darkly don't seem like the work of a sci-fi writer after all.

Stylistically the movie is very similar to Waking Life (which the director and a lot of the crew also worked on) with live action footage being overlapped with animation to give the whole movie a graphic novel appearance. Personally I feel that this is a process that is distracting and rather pointless - art for art's sake. If you want to make an animated movie, then make an animated movie. And, if you want to make a live action movie, then make a live action movie. Combining the two just feels cheap.

Anyone with a personal computer and in interest in movie making will know how to achieve the affect, and I couldn't really see the benefits of using it in this movie. Possibly to save on an effects budget, or to mask any poor acting... whatever the reason, I personally found it made the whole movie feel rather flat - and it will certainly date the film in years to come.

The acting is impressive Robert Downey Jr., is almost unrecognisable as James Barris, Woody Harrelson is fantastically funny as the unhinged, Shaggy from Scooby-Doo look-alike, Ernie Luckman; and Keanu Reeves... well, he just plays Keanu Reeves, really.

One point I was confused about was the Scramble Suits. I didn't really understand how these worked. As no one knows who is inside them what's to stop anyone from infiltrating the building, donning a suit, and causing havoc?

Extras include an audio commentary with Keanu Reeves, Richard Linklater (writer/director), Tommy Pallotta (producer), Jonathan Lethem (Philip K. Dick historian) and Philip K, Dick's daughter Isa Dick Hackett); One Summer in Austin: The Story of Filming A Scanner Darkly 26 min featurette); The Weight of the Line: Animation Tales (20 min featurette that goes behind the scenes with the animators); and Theatrical Trailer.

The audio commentary is fairly interesting. I loved the light hearted discussion about how in the future Americans will all be pulled in and arrested - all assumed guilty, as a formality, in order to protect them all from the terrorist threat.

Sadly I found A Scanner Darkly wasn't as clever as it tried to be. However, it's still entertaining and I'm sure the majority of Philip K Dick fans (or "Dick Heads" as his daughter affectionately refers to them in the commentary) will lap it up.

Nick Smithson

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