Film Reviews

A SCANNER DARKLY

By • Jul 7th, 2006 •

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QUOTE: Impressive and daring. Downey channels James Woods, Harrelson freaks out, Reeves holds the center, and Ryder should have stayed home.

I hated Richard Linklater’s pretentious WAKING LIFE (indulgent, with too many speeches about life) wherein he experimented with a version of animation he and his animators have now significantly improved – to the benefit of us all. It’s called “interpolated rotoscoping.” Director-writer Richard Linklater found Philip K. Dick’s autobiographical sci-fi novel, A SCANNER DARKLY, a perfect vehicle for this process. In fact, it ‘s the only way it could have been filmed. If only Linklater had not cast shoplifter Winona Ryder. (It was widely reported that Ryder was so notorious, one New York department store banned her. Apparently, she wore out Saks Fifth Avenue’s “look the other way” good will.) Regardless, one Hollywood director still remembers lusting after her in HEATHERS or was it DRACULA?

Reeves and Ryder had no chemistry in DRACULA either.

It’s only seven years in the future, and our society tolerates everyone being drugged, even undercover narcotics cops. Everyone is, to some degree, anesthetized by a drug called “Substance D.” It appears to give no pleasure, since it causes “dumbness, despair, desertion and death.” As the society – a fifth of Dick’s future America is addicted – crawls deeper into widespread Substance Abuse D, a police task force has implemented an undercover program. Maybe terrorists are behind this drug, hence the Big Brother surveillance of every person, home, and street. Everyone in the police department wears a suit that constantly changes their appearance. It’s the ultimate disguise and here is where “interpolated rotoscoping” shows off.

Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) is a scramble-suit-wearing undercover cop. This suit is fantastic (and fully realized by the state-of-the-art animation). No one, not even Arctor’s boss, who also wears a scramble-suit, knows who he is. Arctor is told to infiltrate a guy who is thought to be a major Substance D supplier – Arctor’s roommate, James Barris (Robert Downey, Jr). Arctor’s other roommate is hippy Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson); his girlfriend is Donna Hawthorne (Whiny-voiced Ryder).

We are not told why society likes Substance D, but we do see the effects of too much of it. Arctor’s friend Charles Freck (Rory Cochrane) has bugs crawling all over him, and Arctor has left a wife and two young children for an intense romance with the drug. They are paranoid, but someone is watching them.

As an advocate of ayahuasca use, I support psychoactive substances, but Substance D appears to have no known positive side-effects. Wasn’t it Eric Clayton who explained heroin addiction to all of us: “If God created anything better, he kept it for himself.”

“Interpolated rotoscoping” is another experimental way of watching a movie and Linklater shows it off beautifully. It takes awhile to adjust to it and one never quite does – at least one viewing will not suffice to get used to it. It might catch on since actors can be ageless with this painstaking paint-process. But it requires a certain style of acting – exaggeration of expressions and a frenzied storyline, like this one, where it is appropriate.

The process demands skillful actors, and Downey, who channels the soul of James Woods, is perfect for the medium. He is wonderful here, chewing the scenery with witty charm. Since the process requires a certain amount of over-acting, wig-wearing Harrelson dutifully freaks out. Regardless of endless complaints, Reeves holds the center as a moody, angry paranoid playing both the pursuer and the pursued. The weakness in A SCANNER DARKLY is Ryde,r who lacks presence and chemistry with Reeves. Linklater should have cast someone with a strong face like Uma Thurman or, why not, Marilyn Monroe? Imagine Monroe finally playing a drug-addicted, unkempt straw-haired character (just like in real life)?

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