“What does a scanner see? Into the head? Into the heart? From the novel by Philip K. Dick – the sci-fi legend whose works-to-film include Blade Runner, Total Recall and Minority Report – comes A Scanner Darkly, brought to the screen by filmmaker Richard Linklater with an edgy graphic-novel look.
The time: just beyond now. The place: suburbia. The story: a twisted, funny tale of people hooked on Substance D. And of a government that cheerfully destroys its citizens – their rights, their relationships – in order to save them. Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder and Rory Cochrane play strung-out friends terrified of each other and of spies, Keanu Reeves plays a spy who’s also one of the friends… until his two personalities begin to split. Enjoy the paranoia. Nobody’s watching you. Really.”
“A Scanner Darkly” is rated R for drug and sexual content, language and a brief violent image.
As already mentioned, the cast is great. The standout among them is Robert Downey Jr. as James Barris. His paranoid delusions, potentially dangerous behavior, and imagined expertise at all things mechanical make him amusing to watch. The film is its strongest when he’s on the screen. Rory Cochrane is also memorable as Charles Freck. His drug hallucinations and constant twitches show just how far over the deep end a drug addict can go. Keanu Reeves, Woody Harrelson, and Winona Ryder are also good, but it doesn’t seem like a major stretch of their acting abilities to seem stoned.
The animation is hypnotically bizarre. It is perfectly suited for this surreal, drug themed film. The animation is essentially rotoscoped over live action footage and the result is art that is highly stylized but motion that’s photo-real. A suit that hides undercover cops’ identities is also beautifully realized as the facial characteristics constantly shift.
In the end, A Scanner Darkly is not a film for general audiences. It’s story is too convoluted and its scenes too trippy to have mainstream appeal. This movie is mainly for fans of the lead actors, fans of director Richard Linklater, fans of Philip K. Dick, and anyone that enjoys hard sci-fi and cyberpunk novels. I personally found it interesting to watch but ultimately a little too weird for my tastes.
The bonus features are rather light but they cover most of what you should care about. There’s a commentary with writer/director Richard Linklater, Keanu Reeves, producer Tommy Pallotta, author Jonathan Lethem, and Isa Hackett Dick (daughter of Philip K. Dick). It’s a great cross section of interested parties that offer a lot of insight into the bizarre story. “One Summer in Austin: The Story of Filming A Scanner Darkly” is your standard ‘making of’ featurette. It’s about 25 minutes long. It not only shows behind the scenes footage of the filming of the movie, it also shows vintage interviews with Philip K. Dick talking about his story. Rounding out the bonus features is “The Weight of the Line: Animation Tales”, a 25 minute featurette covering the animation of the film. They interview the animators, go over the artistic styles of the various characters, and more. It’s pretty cool and well worth checking out for animation fans.