June 8, 2007

Movies for Grown-Ups: A Scanner Darkly

Tired of seemingly all discussion of movies in this country anymore sliding towards poop fests and other kiddie fare? Me too, which is why I decided to dedicate my Netflix account to nothing but "grown-up" movies, and to write reviews here of each one I see. For a master list of all reviews, as well as the next movies on my "queue" list, click here.

A Scanner Darkly (2006)
Written by Richard Linklater, from the novel by Philip K. Dick
Directed by Richard Linklater

Is it even possible to say too many good things about late science-fiction author Philip K. Dick? Visionary, amphetamine addict, award winner, possible schizophrenic, the creator of concepts literally decades ahead of their time -- the guy's a veritable patron freakin' saint of the underground arts, and anyone who's ever written anything even vaguely hinting of "postmodernism" has Dick to thank for laying the groundwork. And along those lines, is it possible to say too many good things about filmmaker Richard Linklater either? Ever since his explosive debut Slacker in 1991, the writer/director has proven not only that he can deliver commercially friendly Hollywood hits (like 2003's School of Rock, for example, or his remake of Bad News Bears in 2005), but also take the kinds of experimental chances that most people in Hollywood are terrified of even contemplating -- see Waking Life, see Tape, hell, see the stoner classic Dazed and Confused, which simply continues to get more brilliant with every passing year.

Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly

So it might be surprising to learn, then, that I was filled with dread a couple of years ago upon first hearing that these two titans of the indie arts would be combining on one project; that Linklater would in fact be making a film version of the 1977 book A Scanner Darkly, arguably one of the best novels of Dick's career, using a cutting-edge animation technique in which visual artists literally paint over the top of live-action film using digital tools. And I was filled with dread, frankly, because I wanted so bad for this film to be great, wanted so much for it to not turn into one of those grand disappointments that so many of these projects turn out to be. (A little Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, anyone? No? Hey, where are you going?) And now that I've finally sat down and watched it, I can report with immense relief that the movie doesn't disappoint at all; that it is exactly as genius as you would expect such a collaboration to be, a faithful homage to Dick that nonetheless bears the distinct stamp of Linklater's style.

Now, whether or not you like the movie is another matter altogether. But we'll get to that in a bit.

Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly

Set in a relative "seven years from now" in Orange County, California, A Scanner Darkly is first and foremost a cop story, believe it or not; more specifically, the story of undercover narcotics cop "Fred" (Keanu Reeves), posing in the drug world as burned-out suburbanite Bob Arctor, who has traded in his wife and children for a wicked addiction to the super-addictive Substance D, and who has turned his one-story ranch home into a squatter's den of sorts for roommates James (Robert Downey Jr) and Ernie (Woody Harrelson), as well as Arctor's nonsexual girlfriend Donna (Winona Ryder). In the future, see, corruption within the police force has become so widespread, not even a narc's superior is allowed to know the true identities of the people under their command; the police in this near-future wear what's known as "scramble suits" while at the office, shape-shifting body bags that present random pieces of random faces on its surface in a constantly flickering rotation.

Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly

But there's a problem with this that is starting to become more and more prevalent among law enforcement; that one of the side effects of Substance D is to disassociate the two hemispheres of the brain, so that both end up working independently of the other and without being aware of the other's existence. In the case of Fred/Arctor, the addiction effectively creates a split personality, one that even his fellow co-workers are unaware of; so that when Fred eventually gets assigned to tail Arctor, with the police mistakenly believing him to be the kingpin of his motley crew, even Fred himself is unaware that Arctor is his undercover decoy personality. Add to this that no one knows where Substance D originates in the first place, and that another of its side effects is heightened paranoia, and you've got yourself one sick little conspiracy thriller.

Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly

Or do you? That's one of the greatest things about Dick's novels, after all, and what makes them so notoriously difficult to adapt into films; that more than any other modern novelist besides Bret Easton Ellis, Dick was the master of the "unreliable narrator," of the person telling the story being so crazy or drug-addled that you as the reader never quite know what the objective reality of the situation actually is. When the three roommates, for example, begin to suspect that people have been breaking into their house on a regular basis, you as the audience member don't know whether to believe them or not; when one of the "break-ins" turns out to be Donna at an unexpected hour, you become convinced that these are conspiracy-minded junkies we're dealing with, and that the things they believe can be safely ignored; yet in the very next scene, we learn that the police actually have been breaking into the home in order to plant cameras, just that their activities don't have anything to actually do with the roommates' drug-induced paranoia over the matter.

Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly

This kind of plot trickery is usually best done through the written word, which is why such stories traditionally make for great books and lousy movies; after all, it's hard to keep dual roles a secret when you've got an actor onscreen portraying them both. So it's to Linklater's credit, then, that he actually does pull off this unreliable narration in the film version, even when portraying the story in full visual form on the screen; and frankly, most of this can be credited to the style of animation Linklater chose, which apparently is an unending nightmare from a technical standpoint but does provide the exact kind of shifting reality needed to truly bring a Dick story to visual life. It's interesting enough to come across a tightly-plotted, well-directed crime thriller, regarding the murky gray line between the police and the criminals they're assigned to catch; but when the entire story might or might not be the paranoid delusions of a narc addicted to the very drug he was hired to fight, now you got yourself something fascinating.

Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly

Now, all this said, I can guarantee that A Scanner Darkly is not going to be for everyone, and in fact may not even be right for every fan of dense trippy science-fiction movies out there. It's a well-known fact, for example, that Linklater writes really, really talky scripts, and this movie is no exception; if you dislike long dialogue scenes, especially ones that exist more to define the characters than the storyline, then you need to stay away from this film as much as possible (and indeed, stay away from most of Linklater's entire oeuvre). Also, I could easily see how the experimental visual style of this film might turn some people off ferociously; and that's simply part of being experimental, of course, is that by its very definition half of the audience is going to love it and half hate it.

Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly

But then again, this is almost a perfect time in history for an adaptation of A Scanner Darkly to be made; among other things, the novel correctly predicts an age of nearly constant government surveillance of its citizens, an age when the relationship between the government and America's largest corporations are at their murkiest and most colluding. An age when the US has effectively become a Disneyfied police state, with soldiers in the streets unnecessary because of the population already being kept under such great control, mostly voluntarily through the proliferation of mindless entertainment and society-approved drugs. (A little Xanax and "American Idol," anyone? No? Hey, where are you going?) It may not end up being your cup of tea, but I can guarantee that you will never see another film quite like A Scanner Darkly; this alone I think makes it worth checking out, not to mention that it might just turn out to be one of your favorite films of all time.

Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly

Or, you know, maybe you'll think it sucks. That's the chance you always take with people like Dick and Linklater; which is why I'll always take people like Dick and Linklater over safer artists, any day of the week.

Out of 10:
Writing: 9.3
Acting: 8.9
Directing: 9.7
Cinematography: 9.0
Overall: 9.5

Random notes:
--For those who don't know, A Scanner Darkly is much more autobiographical than one would expect; from 1970 to '72, in fact, Dick left his then-current family and turned his own suburban home into a flophouse for a rotating band of hippie junkies, which is where most of the dialogue from this film is derived. Also, the afterward at the end of the movie (listing the actual dead drug addicts that the story is dedicated to) is the same afterward from the original novel.

--Linklater makes lots of little references to Dick and his work throughout the movie; among other examples spotted by eagle-eyed IMDB members are the brand of James' watch (Philip), the brand of earphones worn by the woman in the surveillance room (Phil D), the brand of wine Freck purchases at the liquor store (St. Ubik, a reference to Dick's novel Ubik), and the name of the machine used to medically test Fred/Arctor ("VK mk 1," a reference to the "Voight Kampff procedure" from Blade Runner, itself an adaptation of Dick's book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?).

--That sadistic doctor at the very end of the movie? Yeah, that's David Cronenberg.

--And finally, how can I be a red-blooded male and not mention this? Winona Ryder shows her boobs in this movie, which I believe is the first time in her entire career she's done such a thing. Why did people not make a huge honkin' deal out of this when the movie first came out? Oh yeah, that's right, 'cause they're cartoon boobs, which I guess don't count.

Best viewed: with all your ComicCon buddies, on a big couch in the middle of the night, while smacking each other on the shoulder every ten minutes and yelling, "Dude! Oh, dude! Oh, crap, DUDE!"

Next on my queue list: 24 Hour Party People, the fictionalized account of Manchester, England in the 1970s and '80s, the years that produced basically the soundtrack of my high-school days (including such Manchester-based bands as Joy Division, bauhaus, Dead Can Dance and The Smiths).

Read even more about A Scanner Darkly: Amazon | IMDb | Netflix | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 8:08 AM, June 8, 2007. Filed under: Movies | Reviews |