June 28, 2006

The Good The Bad The Ugly

A Scanner Darkly

There have been a lot of good films so far this year, but Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly (opening July 7) is the first that might be called visionary.

This adaptation of Philip K. Dick's 1977 novel employs the same rotoscope animation system as Linklater's Waking Life (2001) — using it to create a more radically disorienting result. This would-be stoner movie induces a pronounced, even physical state of paranoia. When it was over, I found myself grabbing at the walls, eager to make sure that they were really there.

And that's appropriate, given that Scanner pivots on the confusion between reality and hallucination. Like Dick's We Can Remember It For You Wholesale (filmed as Total Recall) and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (the basis for Blade Runner), the movie centers on a protagonist who can't trust his own mind. Seven years in the future, Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) is an undercover detective in Anaheim, California, attempting to bust a ring of users of Substance D, a highly addictive hallucinogen that Arctor himself is compelled to abuse in the course of his detecting.

Exactly how illegal Substance D is is a question the book and the movie leave mildly ambiguous; Arctor's dropping it is a form of government-sanctioned hypocrisy. But in taking it, Arctor (or "Fred," in his police codename) successfully divides himself into two personalities — an untenable state abetted by his donning of a "scramble suit," which alters his appearance depending on the context. Fred is thus unwittingly assigned to investigate his own life, and the lives of roommates. Even Arctor's junkie girlfriend (Winona Ryder) may be implicated — if she can, in fact, be called his girlfriend.

The presence of Reeves and the theme of multiple realities have already courted comparisons to The Matrix, but Linklater — whose movies indulge their characters' penchants for philosophy and self-reflection — takes pains to keep the action resolutely earthbound. If anything, this is the most discomfortingly ordinary sci-fi movie since Shane Carruth's under-championed Primer (2004). It's a film in which the greatest villains are either faceless bureaucrats or inner demons; where the only violent scenes take place in backyards or on highways close to home and the only way to figure out who's bugging your house is, perversely enough, to leave a note on the door inviting them to break in.

Linklater, who also wrote the screenplay, is exceedingly faithful to Dick's conception, but he does add certain idiosyncrasies, most spectacularly through Robert Downey Jr. — giving a sensational performance as the scheming yet incompetent addict Jim Barris. Viewers may even emerge incorrectly thinking that several of the quirkier passages — an argument about the number of gears on a bicycle, a scene in which an alien takes more than 1,000 years to read someone his last rights — are Linklater's contributions.

In any case, his chief aesthetic decision is perfect. With its unnerving waviness and its ability to turn cast members into shape-shifters, the rotoscoping — i.e., shooting on film, then animating over the footage — makes it impossible to tell what's real and what isn't. (The fact that the technology is relatively cheap only enhances the sense that this is a handmade project.) As the most trustworthy of Arctor's drug-addled cohorts, Woody Harrelson plays a character far younger than his corporeal self.

The political subtext of A Scanner Darkly is unmistakable. The state's reliance on (edited) surveillance to determine what's happening in people's homes, as well as its use of drastic, convoluted means to achieve simple ends — these themes may be even more potent than they were at the time Dick wrote the novel (which was, in part, a lament for friends whose own drug use led to dire consequences). With Scanner, Linklater again proves himself to be one of the most radical directors working today. His films are devoted not only to questioning the nature of everyday life but also committed — by testing new formats for posing those questions — to improving the waking lives of movies.

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