on 18 April 2009
Now here is a interesting proposition, a semi autobiographical book by the late, much lauded writer Philip K Dick, adapted by the man who directed "School Of Rock" ("A Scanner Darkly" not exactly being an obvious follow up), featuring Robert Downey Jr, Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder and Woody Harrelson playing a group of drugged up, progressively paranoid individuals who basically just hang around exchanging o-so-very-paranoid chatter about almost everyone and everything around them. I confess to being a quite a lightweight when it comes to Philip K Dick. Of his writings I've only read "Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep" and was startled that such a fascinating read could be altered, borderline scrapped and still be made into one of the most celebrated films ever made, you should know the one. I've seen "Minority Report"(adapted from a series of short stories by Dick) and Total Recall and while I enjoyed both, particularly the former there's something to be revelled in "A Scanner Darkly" seeing what is supposed to be a faithful adaptation (last time I use that word I promise) of one of Dick's works particularly one that is a very personal piece of writing and partly because of this the film is a tough one to dissect. Paranoia, drug use, basic human rights, identity and sacrifice are all major themes explored here viewed through the brilliant mind of Dick and the wildly creative Richard Linklater who shot the film digitally before using animators to rotoscope over live action footage giving the film a highly stylised and distinctive look, like that of a graphic novel come to life but in a more literal, cartoon-like manner as opposed to something like "Sin City"
"A Scanner Darkly" opens in bizarre fashion with the sight of drug addict Freck (Rory Cochrane) trying to rid his body, home and dog of imaginary little green insects crawling all over his body, which he is only seeing due to a typical side effect caused by Substance D, a pivotal plot point and a very powerful drug that eventually wreaks havoc with the mental capacity of the user, such as that of burned out undercover narcotics agent Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) who comes to wearily describing the drug he's becoming addicted to as "dumbness and despair and desertion...elation loneliness hating and suspecting others, and finally slow death". As a cop Arctor wears a scramble suit, an odd creation, which could only work within the film's unique rotoscoping process, which contains over a million fragmented images of men, woman and children that constantly move around. This special suit keeps Bob's identity secret from those around him though its function is to prevent fellow officers knowing who he is. Bob's personal life is filled with colourful drug addicts, his roommates, Luckman (Woody Harrelson) and Barris (Robert Downey Jr) who both happily make the most of Substance D. The director Richard Linklater makes the most of a very brilliant, on form Downey Jr working with an edgy character that conducts such interesting experiments as creating homemade silencers for sixty-one cents as well as attempting to extract cocaine from aerosol cans. Downey fills Barris with an wonderfully erratic energy along with a sense of intellectual superiority over all those around him, he talks the talk like all good bluffs but his homemade silencer and cocaine trick aren't up to much amongst other ideas and fantasies concocted by this darkly amusing, edgy, paranoid and absolutely brilliant creation that the actor brings giving a great contrast to everyone else be it the Reeves character who is either laid back, dazed or playing a purposeful cop, or the similarly strung out yet honest and likable Ryder character as well as a very over the top Woody Harrelson who, in comparison to Downey, Reeves and Ryder gets saddled with a comic yet slightly limited stoner and unlike another addict played by Rory Cochrane doesn't get to go to the darkly comic regions we see Cochran's in.
While Downey, Harrelson and Cochran's characters appear to be Bob's friends he is romantically involved with a small time drug dealer and fellow addict Donna Hawthorne (Winona Ryder), often a confused young woman, possibly due to the fact she's drugged up on Substance D and cocaine to the point where she robustly rejects any form of sexual contact. Yet she's an oddly warm figure in the film, the only real female presence and her relationship with Bob Arctor pays off by the time we come to a surprisingly poignant climax that re-affirms the tender soul in Donna while giving her a whole new complexion in the proceedings. Looking back over the film, not a great deal happens in comparison to the far more elaborate films based on Dicks work, there's a considerable amount of simple drug fuelled chatter among the burn-out group Arctor hangs around with. As an undercover cop who is experiencing severe problems with Substance D he begins to lose sight of his own identity and due to leads connected with Downey's character ends up investigating his own group of friends as surveillance cameras are secretly placed all over his house. As problems with D rise Arctor begins to experience difficulty seeing what's right in front of him, even wondering whether a life he had, involving a wife and children was merely a very detailed creation within his own mind. His addiction eventually renders him with two personalities, one, his undercover cop monitoring his everyday life as Bob Arctor and his day-to-day life as Arctor. These are the same person of course but when we start Arctor is fully aware of his identity despite exposure to Substance D and it was only on the second viewing that I took real notice of the changeover, which eventually leads to a tragic finale for this troubled individual.
The distinctive look of "A Scanner Darkly" may put some off, though in my opinion the performances are strong enough, particularly Downey's and Ryder's (though Cochran's character, as the actor himself feared does become little more than a cartoon) to survive the transition. If not the look, then the off beat nature of the story is sure to alienate certain viewers and produce a few negative remarks for a film that may only ever obtain a very select "cult" following, but you don't need to be a particularly adventurous film fan to give this a look, or to experience something that on a cinematic level, at times is actually quite meaningful. An open mind certainly helps in any case.