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Movie Review: A Scanner Darkly

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You have to take it all in context — the seemingly philosophical rants, the overly drawn sense of paranoia, even the hallucinogenic environment. Such a euphoric state is usually the result of large doses of some mind-altering substance formally known as a narcotic.

While in such a state, we are easily swept into an alternate version of our own reality. It allows us the opportunity to do things we would not normally imagine ourselves doing. A similar euphoric state is created during the viewing of Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly, which coincidentally is an intended effect.

Right off the bat we are hurled into a unique world of the future where the nation’s drug problem is more than just a problem; it has become a plague. We are focused in on Orange County, where an undercover detective (Keanu Reeves) has assimilated himself into a small group of what he hopes to be people of importance in the dealing of a drug named Substance D.

This group is made up of the philosophical and melodramatic Barris (Robert Downey Jr.), the spacey Ernie (Woody Harrelson), the completely over the edge druggy Freck (Rory Cochrane) and his lovely but frigid girlfriend, Donna (Winona Ryder), all of whom seem to be mysteriously involved in something potentially big.

As he follows his orders and dives deeper into the dark and unforgiving world of drugs, he realizes he is beginning to change along with those around him. He must find a way to break through his own addictions and find his way to the root of the Substance D network.

A Scanner DarklyWe are sent spinning into the depths of a film that feels almost like a hallucination. In a rehashing of the technique that Director Linklater used in the previously acclaimed film Waking Life, he uses live action that has been animated over with the use of a technique called interpolated rotoscoping (try that on for size.)

Basically the movie has a very unique look, which creates, in many instances, the feeling of being under the influence. To say that such a style is new and revolutionary would be overkill, as Linklater used it in 2001, but it is the first time he has put it to use for such a mainstream project. The film itself is absolutely beautiful as a work of art. It cannot be ignored that, without the animated effect of being high, this film may not have been as alluring.

Once you get past the allure of such a delightful visual experience, you are greeted by a few very solid, if not great performances, the first of which is the very cynical and intelligent mind of Robert Downey Jr. personified in the character of Barris.

It is easy to see that Keanu Reeves was meant to be the center of attention in this film and Downey was there to bring some flair and keep audiences interested. Kudos to Linklater and crew because such a strategy works beautifully as this duo walks us through this world with as many lighthearted follies as serious points of conflict. Downey makes the film entertaining; the story makes it interesting.

To say the least, the story is more compelling than it is just interesting. Interesting is a work of art in a museum somewhere. The story behind this film is riveting. Based on the events that plagued Sci-Fi author Philip K. Dick’s life, this story very quickly grabs hold of us and leads us into confusion. We are then tossed around in that confusion for a while, but kept interested with the subtly sensational elements of dark comedy littered throughout the middle of the film.

Just as we think we are going to be tossed around some more, the plot comes together neatly, in time for us to figure out exactly what happened. While some viewers may get lost in the haze, most will find their way back through this amazing tale. The dark, cold existence of the drug culture in America portrayed in this film is absolutely chilling to behold, much to the plan of both author and filmmaker.

On a whole, this is a film that may not be for everyone as the dialogue moves quickly, the story twists, and some minds will be lost on the way. But it lends well to anyone who is interested in seeing a movie that does not conform to the standards of your average Hollywood drama. Even more so, it is a film that is equally as cool in nature as it is thought provoking.

The message is clear and the animation creates a world unlike any other in film, making A Scanner Darkly an easy addition to the must-see list of 2006.

Release Date: July 7, 2006 (limited)

Final Grade: 4 Stars
A visual treat mixed with a very thought provoking and engaging story, with some talented actors tossed in for good measure. Take a chance, see this film, you will be in for a treat.

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About Neil Miller

  • Good review, I can’t wait to see the film. The book was great, and I love Linklater’s previous rotoscoped-madness Waking Life, so I expect nothing short of excellence.

  • ss

    I thought it was pretty good, but, after Waking Life, some of PKD’s dialouge, espicially the stuff coming from Harrelson, seemed to hit alot of sour notes.

  • The message is clear and the animation creates a world unlike any other in film, making A Scanner Darkly an easy addition to the must-see list of 2005.

    Cool! If I travel back in time, I guess it will be playing at a theatre near me!!

  • I am an idiot… 5 and 6 are next to each other on the keyboard though, so that could be the cause of the error… hehe.

  • Ah hah!!

    Problem sovled! Thanks Anna!

    Now I only look like 1/2 a tard…