A SCANNER DARKLY
Reviewed by Sam Hatch
AS THIS IS PART OF A YEAR-END DISCUSSION AS OPPOSED TO A TRADITIONAL REVIEW, THERE MAY BE SPOILERS PRESENT IN THE TEXT.
Cinema is no stranger to the quirky science fiction writings of the late author Philip K. Dick. Unfortunately, most of the film adaptations of his work have amounted to shoddy b-movie spins on his older short stories and dimestore books. His later novels that attempted to bridge the gap between science fiction (viewed as a non-art form by just about everyone during Dick's heyday) and 'legitimate' fiction have received little to no attention from Hollywood. The artistically successful film Blade Runner (adapted from the novel "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?") bears little resemblance to its source material. Before Scanner, the most faithful film adaptation was Barjo (based on "Confessions of a Crap Artist"), which is a relatively unseen Canadian film. Screamers, Paycheck, Total Recall and Minority Report are other Dick yarns adapted with differing levels of success, but those familiar with those films will find few similarities to this great ensemble piece that focuses more on tangential thoughts and wiry dialogue than on ultra-violent shootouts and chase scenes.
Richard Linklater filmed the story in live action, and later employed the painstaking rotoscope animation process he had previously dabbled in for Waking Life. Whereas that film's look varied throughout the numerous stories told, Scanner holds a unified style throughout its running time. Apart from a few objects that seem to wiggle in space it maintains a very solid appearance with clean lines and thick, black outlines. This realistic tact can strike some as unnecessary (indeed, in some scenes the animation is almost impossible to pinpoint as non live-action footage), yet the end result is a film that plays very much like reading a graphic novel illustrated in a realistic, clean style. There's actually a great photo novella of the film available, which looks like a drawn comic book even though it's simply still frames taken directly from the film.
The story was concocted after a period in Dick's life when he inhabited a commune-like house that was open to (primarily college-aged) hippies, druggies, revolutionaries and anyone eager to listen to his wild stories and be entertained by a strange, charming middle-aged man. After numerous attempts at marriage and 'normal' life, Phil reveled in a time where he could connect with younger kids and students and share in their freedom. Unfortunately, his paranoia got the best of him, and a break-in at the house left him shaken for years after the fact. This era led to the creation of Scanner, the exaggerated tale of Bob Arctor and the bizarre denizens that run in his social circle.
Keanu Reeves is decent enough as the detached Arctor, who is both a Narcotics Officer and the drug dealer under surveillance by his police task force. Split personalities are only one of his problems, as his house (the sole remaining vestige of a failed marriage) is often populated by a group of bizarre characters played by Robert Downey Jr, Woody Harrelson, Wynona Ryder and Rory Cochrane as Freck. It is Freck's plight that opens the film, as an overdose on the futuristic drug of choice Substance D leaves him convinced that his body (not to mention his dog) is covered in legions of aphids. He later has an imaginative trip sequence in which Dick's own writing emanates from a radio in spoken word form as Freck endures a visitation by an alien being who reads to him an interminably long list of his sins. If the ordinary looking scenes involving Arctor and crew roaming around a very un-futuristic LA in a beat up 80's Oldsmobile make the choice to animate questionable, it's moments like Freck's flights of insanity that reveal the choice to be a very wise one. Another difficult-to-render visual is the scramble suit, a thin clothlike veil that all narcotics officers wear - which displays a constantly shifting amalgam of faces and clothing, thereby protecting the true identity of the wearer.
Ryder comes out of a relative career coma as Arctor's pseudo girlfriend Donna, who won't allow anyone to touch her based on the argument that she does a lot of cocaine. Downey is unsuprisingly sublime as the conniving James Barris who oftentimes plays these jokers against one another yet remains clueless as to how pointless his machinations are. Harrelson is also great as the ironically named Ernie Luckman, one of Barris' biggest chumps. The dialogue is king in most scenes, such as when a road trip leads the group to conclude that Arctor's car was sabotaged, which leads to further paranoid fantasies involving the security of Arctor's house. There's also a great scene in Arctor's backyard where Barris' feeble attempt at creating a homemade silencer for his gun scares the crap out of everyone.
Arctor himself is not the moral center amidst these outrageous nutjobs, but is a quiet ringmaster keeping himself at arms length from the spazzy energy of his 'friends'. He's more concerned with his own introspective madness, and there is a distinct possibilty that the hemispheres of his brain are losing connection due to an addiction to the substance that he is supposedly dedicated to destroying. Though for all of the film's deliriously dizzying conversations and loopy drug addled logic, the film actually ties together rather neatly at the finish, and concludes with an interesting twist accompanied by a very real and poignant message. The fact that Dick spins his yarn so far out into the fringes of insanity renders the moments of coherent revelation that much more potent.Like most great Science Fiction, the film doesn't overtly feel like part of that genre apart from some of the visuals and technology (such as the scramble suit). But in reality a large part of the story is not much different from very non-Sci Fi films such as Trainspotting and The Salton Sea. I must also give credit to the great soundtrack, which wisely plunders obscure b-sides from Radiohead's Kid A/Amnesiac era and also debuts Thom Yorke's solo song Black Swan.