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January 3, 2012

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On DVD/Blu-ray – Review and Disc Commentary Track: A Scanner Darkly (2006)

by NIR SHALEV

Philip K. Dick is one of the greatest sci-fi novelists of the 20th century and was also, rightly, hugely paranoid. He believed so much that the FBI and CIA had files on him that they did eventually decide to open case files on him. Unfortunately, even though he claims that they allowed him to see his files, the files simply claimed the fact that they wanted to open files on him for investigative reasons and there was nothing on him there at all. It’s a weird and sad type of irony. That was during the 1970s.

Dick was always on one kind of methamphetamine drug or another when writing his strange, somewhat deranged stories like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (made into the classic film Blade Runner), Ubik, and The Man in the High Castle (winner of the Hugo award). But when writing A Scanner Darkly, he wasn’t on a single drug and the characters of the story were based on many people that he knew. Yes, it’s a personal story to him and it feels like one after the first viewing.

A Scanner Darkly takes place “7 years from now” and is based around L.A. It follows the daily lives of several tweakers (a/k/a drug addicts): Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves), James Barris (Robert Downey Jr.), Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson), Charles Freck (Rory Cochrane), and Donna Hawthorne (Winona Rider). Arctor, Barris, and Luckman live in Arctor’s house and are usually tweaked out of their minds. Arctor is the “patriarch”, always cool headed and trying to make sense of things calmly and respectfully; Barris is the geek who’s also dangerous and is somewhat of a sociopath; and Luckman is always laid back but tends to freak out much more than the rest. Donna is dating Arctor but her drug-fueled nature disallows them from having any kind of intimate relationship. It’s not a cliché, it’s how many drug addicts actually behave.

The men’s drug of choice is Substance D. Highly addictive like methamphetamine and similar to ecstasy but far more potent, and you can never take too many caps; Donna prefers cocaine. Whenever asked how many caps of D they took, the men answer, “not that many”. Now here’s the interesting part: Arctor is a plainclothes narcotics officer, at work known as Frank, and has been abusing Substance D so much that when his work colleagues bug his house with hidden microphones and cameras he doesn’t recognize himself when he watches the playback at work. He is so far gone that when he pretends to be Arctor he forgets that he is actually Frank and as Frank, Arctor is another person. Workplace psychiatrists claim that his right brain hemisphere is battling his left and whenever they can’t seem to cooperate on one truth his brain, overall makes things up to compensate, a known side effect of Substance D.

The film then begins to take form as a commentary on common, daily drug abuse but the author’s commentary belongs entirely to the fact that even though drugs are indeed bad, while the repercussions are severe they’re not nearly severe as the treatment, or lack of, that drug addicts receive from the authorities. Philip K. Dick believed that the authorities treated addicts too harshly and the third act of the story deals with that aspect in a harsh manner. Because the first two acts are so mysterious, hilarious, absurd, and profound, as entertaining as they are they hide what is about to happen and when it does it hits the audience over the head with a strong blunt object.

There are a lot of comedic aspects to the film, like when some of the main characters argue about why Barris’s new bike has only nine gears instead of 18 and that they want find the bike salesmen and rescue the nine orphan gears, and also a terrific short sequence depicting Freck imagining that Barris is fantasizing about a waitress. These scenes are written as comedic and in no way are meant to showcase the dulling of the senses due to drug abuse (wink), because, ironically without the drugs we wouldn’t have such entertaining characters. However, the film’s main focus is on Arctor and Frank and how they share the same body but have two different minds and it’s rather, pardon the phrase, mind-blowing.

Lastly, the film was shot in a live-action manner, actors performing inside studios and such but during the post production period the look of the film was rotoscoped to add another dimension, one that looks animated but features recognizable actors. Everything seems to hover yet it all looks and feels normal; while general architecture and objects are recognizable they have a painted look to them and we feel like we’re on some kind of wonderful drug that we didn’t physically have to ingest. For more on the rotoscoping technique, you can read my post on Ralph Bakshi’s Wizards as I explain it there in slightly more detail.

The commentary track contains the voices of writer/director Richard Linklater, who’d previously shot another wonderful, rotoscoped film called Waking Life (2001), actor Keanu Reeves, producer Tommy Pallotta, author Jonathan Lethem, and Dick’s daughter Isa Dick Hackett. The group talks about the look of the film and its appropriate nature (looking animated and realistic at the same time); the time during which Dick wrote the original story and how it was the only time that he wasn’t on any drugs; the overall message that a police state would induce a state of paranoia within us more than doing any real good; and also little things like how the house number in the film is almost the same as Dick’s actual home (it’s only off by two numbers).

The film blew me away during my initial viewing of it and continues to do so with every subsequent viewing. I love the look of it; the kooky yet concentrated performances in it; the various statements found within; and the knowledge that it’s the most accurate adaptation of a Philip K. Dick novel to date (I have read the novel so I can claim that fact). I have never taken drugs in my life and many other people haven’t either, but this is not a film that only stoners would enjoy. On the contrary: this is a film that when we concentrate on its message it pops out and hits us over the head in such a way that we feel sorry for said drug addicts. An addict is an addict and everybody needs help. Why should we single anyone out?

A Scanner Darkly is available on DVD and Blu-ray. In addition to the disc commentary track, extras are the short feature “The Weight of the Line: Animation Tales” and the trailer.

New releases this week: Contagion, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, The Guard, I Don’t Know How She Does It, Shark Night


2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jan 8 2012

    You’ve hit on another of those films that I know I really need to see. It seems like just in the last few months I’ve seen it recommended on multiple sites, including some “top 10 animated films” lists.

  2. Jan 9 2012

    After having watched the trailer for the first time I asked myself why the film needs to be “animated”; live-action would have been just fine. But 10 minutes into it and I knew that I was wrong. I’ve seen it several times in the past 5 years and I highly recommend the Blu-ray version. It’s cheap, especially on eBay and it looks terrific.

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