a critiQal film review A Scanner Darkly (2006)

Plot: 7 years from now, the government is fighting a losing battle against addiction to a new drug - Substance D. One agent (Reeves) has infiltrated a group of drug-using friends, whose paranoia makes them terrified of each other - and of spies. There is only one problem - he's becoming addicted himself.

878 words (Est. Reading Time 4m 23s)

I knew I had to see A Scanner Darkly as soon as I first saw a preview. Finally, here was a combination of two of my favorite things: a Philip K. Dick short story and animation. But, alas, our bank account took too many hits at the theaters during our Summer at the Movies, so we were unable to check out A Scanner Darkly when it hit theaters last July. Now that it’s on DVD, I jumped at the chance to rent it.

But, would A Scanner Darkly follow in the footsteps of Blade Runner (1982), Total Recall (1990), Minority Report (2002) and Paycheck (2003) to become the 5th successful adaptation of a Philip K. Dick story, or would it fall more in line with Impostor to become the 2nd unsuccessful adaptation? And would the new animation technique used in A Scanner Darkly hurt it’s chances – or help them?

Keanu Reeves, after his The Matrix (1999) series success, has been going for different roles since. He’s appeared in a romantic drama (The Lake House), a romantic comedy (Something’s Gotta Give) and now this film. Of course, he has slipped back once, playing off his success by appearing in Constantine (2005), but for the most part, he’s trying out different genres.

With Constantine (2005) and A Scanner Darkly, even though he’s ventured into sci-fi again, he’s portraying characters with major flaws, a total difference from his “perfect” Neo. In Constantine (2005), it was an addiction to cigarettes that was slowly killing him, in this film he plays an undercover cop who is addicted to the drug he’s trying to wipe out.

In both cases, Keanu shows a depth to his acting that fans of his old films (Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989), etc.) never would have realized he had. A Scanner Darkly showcases this new-found depth to it’s greatest extent so far, as he has to convey to the audience the incredibly brutal effects the drug is having on him, while at the same time trying to hide those effects from the people around him. It’s a great performance, and a sign of better things to come for Keanu.

The other actors, despite giving good performances on their own, are all related to some sort of bad press that the viewer can’t quite shake when they watch them act in A Scanner Darkly. Winona Ryder – shoplifting charges. Woody Harrelson – dope head. Robert Downey, Jr. – drug addict. This actually works well for Woody and Robert, as they are both supposed to be addicted to drugs in the film – so the viewer assumes they are calling up past experiences in their acting, and thus giving a more realistic performance.

Winona Ryder also seems to play off her weird “shoplifting” vibe for most of A Scanner Darkly, as the viewer would easily be able to see her character getting caught for stealing something as silly as socks (or whatever it is Winona actually stole).

The animation even helps to convey the drug-induced state of most of the characters of A Scanner Darkly. It’s almost as if the characters are seeing themselves as animated – slightly off-kilter with the rest of the world, just a figment of someone’s imagination. While the characters are mixed up in a crazy world, they use drugs to escape from the norm – and become more “animated” in their thinking and their actions. Even if it’s something as mundane as a car breaking down on the side of the road, their minds spring into overdrive, and paranoia kicks in, as they decide the whole world must be out to get them.

This trippy mind-set is A Scanner Darkly‘s biggest asset – and it’s biggest problem as well. As the movie progresses, and the characters’ drug addictions worsen, the viewer continues to watch, just waiting to see how else the characters’ minds will further degenerate. Unfortunately, this becomes the overriding reason to keep watching, and the plot fades a little into the background. When the plot again takes precedence near the end of the film, the viewer is jerked back to reality as suddenly as the main character is with a plot twist, and the viewer is jumped from scene-to-scene quickly until the end of the film.

While this ending is something most will have seen coming from miles away (including the plot twist) the quickness in which it is revealed is somewhat disturbing. Hopefully, the director was trying to jerk the viewer out of the lull the rest of the movie leads them into on purpose, to showcase how harsh reality seems to addicts when they can’t rely on drugs for escape anymore.

Knowing the pasts of the film’s actors going in (Winona’s bizarre shoplifting, Robert’s drug addiction, Woody’s penchant for the wacky weed, even Keanu’s old stigma of not being a “real” actor) is usually something films try to overcome (seen Mel Gibson in anything lately and not thought about his anti-Semitic comments?), but it actually helps A Scanner Darkly into pulling the viewer into the odd, slightly off-kilter world of it’s characters.

Sometimes disturbing (and sometimes boring), A Scanner Darkly isn’t for everyone. But, it’s realistic portrayal of how drugs can alter the mind without the taker even being aware of it may strike a chord with some.

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