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A Scanner Darkly Print E-mail
Sunday, 01 July 2007

Image Set at a cleverly indeterminate “7 years in the future,” “A Scanner Darkly” relates a somewhat loose, but intriguing tale of a drug called “Substance D” and its hallucinatory destructive effects on a group of people in a California suburb. Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) is an undercover policeman, working within a small circle of “Substance D” users to find the key supplier of this particularly destructive drug. Continued use of “Substance D” causes increasing paranoia, hallucinations and irrational behavior. The twitchy, unsettled Freck (Rory Cochrane) is the most extremely effected of the bunch, obsessed with the feeling that he’s covered with tiny crawling aphids. Arctor’s undercover identity is unknown, even to those in charge within the police, as undercover officers and their liaisons are cloaked in a “scramble suit” whenever they enter the police station, which makes their physical and voice details impossible to discern. While at the station, Arctor is told to closely monitor a drug-related suspect, who is also under surveillance from several cameras in his home. This suspect turns out to be Arctor— bafflingly, Arctor has been told to spy and monitor himself. Unable to break his cover and reveal his identity, Arctor goes through the motions, watching the activities of his “Substance D” afflicted houseguests and himself, but the continued usage of the drug necessary to his undercover work and his latest task’s identity confusion begin to quietly unravel his sense of reality.

Based on the book by Philip K. Dick (himself a dug-addicted paranoiac), “A Scanner Darkly” is a hard story to pin down. On one hand it’s an ultimately moving and heartbreaking tale of drug addiction and of people victimized by larger unseen forces, but at the same time, Linklater and co. allow us to vicariously enjoy the paranoid and nonsensical antics of Arctor’s fellow addicts. The interplay between Luckman (Woody Harrelson), Barris (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Freck is extremely funny. The film has an odd perspective, as we’re encouraged to laugh at and be entertained by the characters’ drug-addled behavior, but are not encouraged to identify with them. The film’s sympathies lie almost solely with Arctor, the least humorous of the bunch. Perhaps Linklater is trying to show a reason why people would take “Substance D” in the first place—the user gains a sense of unreality and an artificial sense of heightened awareness, which, to outside eyes, is really just paranoia and hallucinatory visions. Live action footage was rotoscoped and painted over via computers into an animated version; this imaginatively depicts the film’s sense of paranoia and unreality that its characters experience under the influence of the ‘Substance D’ drug. While the film’s unusual technique may have seemed distracting in brief promotional snippets, it works very well in the film itself. The stylized animated look meshes with the story, and it becomes an immersive, involving experience. Stylistically, the look of the animation closely resembles a “paint-by-numbers” product, with colors and shades broken into clearly defined areas, instead of appearing gradated across an entire object or face. There may be up to ten different tones on a human character’s face, but they don’t blend into each other, they’re clearly confined to set areas, and move depending on how the lighting hits the character and by how the characters move. The animation also lends instant believability to the scramble suit, which camouflages its wearer in a constantly shifting series of programmed physical details—skin and hair color and style, eye color, features and clothing as well as sex are broken into four to six visible panels which never coalesce, but flicker and alternate, so there’s never a single solid appearance to lock onto. While certainly in the realm of what may be realized these days with digital effects in a live-action scenario, its distracting “other-ness” in the midst of such tangible reality may not have worked. In the animated world seen here, one is able to enjoy the concept without being pulled from the story by an impressive realistic effect.

The cast, working in very odd circumstances (trying to anticipate the needs of animation, and basing the broadness of their facial expressions and physical behavior on that) is excellent, and though we’re deprived of their actual physical expressions, the animators bring their performances to life in very interesting and imaginative ways. The chief argument for the technique’s success is the quiet power of the film’s ending. We’re lead to clearly understand what is happening and are made to feel for this character who we’ve only seen in a very stylized, artificial reality, yet despite that are quietly affected by the haunting denouement. It’s an intriguing, original work that is worthwhile and will be worth revisiting in years to come.

Animation and its fields of pure and solidly delineated colors benefits tremendously from HD’s greater detail, stability and clarity. MPEG compression on standard def DVD gives the animation a feeling of constant microscopic movement which isn’t present in 35mm presentations and is almost entirely eliminated in HD. Apart from a few instances where there’s some line shimmer on a background detail, this HD DVD release, presenting the film in its original 1.85 ratio, delivers an extremely smooth looking image with pristine visual clarity and vivid, accurate colors. The combination of rotoscoped imagery and computer enhanced animation is presented in a near-perfect edition that is an excellent demo for how much better animated titles will look in high definition and should form the basis for a good argument toward releasing more animated titles in the HD formats.

The Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 audio is warm and crisp. It’s an almost entirely front-focused mix with the surround channels given near non-existent use. It’s a solid and effective mix, though; well balanced, consistent in volume and the dialogue is always clear.

Director Richard Linklater, producer Tommy Pallotta, Isa Dick-Hackett (Philip K.’s daughter) and a large cadre of contributors provide solid commentary that thankfully spends as much time discussing the source novel and its themes as the film itself. The participants are clearly respectful of Philip K. Dick and are politely straightforward about his personal life and how elements of the film and book reflect biographical material. The commentary is a worthwhile companion piece to the featurettes, as the participants shed a revealing light on some comments made by Dick in footage from a French-subtitled interview with him from 1977. The trailer, which does an amusingly convincing job of promoting the film as an edge-of-your-seat thriller, is wisely included.

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