In a totalitarian society in a near future, the undercover detective Bob Archor is working with a small time group of drug users trying to reach the big distributors of a brain-damaging drug called Substance D. His assignment is promoted by the recovery center New Path Corporation, and when Bob begins to lose his own identity and have schizophrenic behavior, he is submitted to tests to check his mental conditions. Written by
Claudio Carvalho, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
The brand on the earphone of the woman in the surveillance room reads »Phil D.«. See more »
Donna's car is a convertible, but whenever she's having a ride with Bob (at relatively high speeds), their hair is barely moving. See more »
[on the phone]
I looked them up. They're aphids. They're in my hair, on my skin, in my lungs. And the pain, Barris, it's unreasonable. They're all over the place. Oh, they've completely gotten Millie too.
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The "Phil" mentioned in the "in memoriam" list as having permanent pancreatic damage is Philip K. Dick himself. See more »
one of the more imaginative, thoughtful, complex possible 'cult' films of the decade
It's not very often that Phillip K. Dick's writings get adapted well on to the screen. Films like Paycheck and Impostor might have there moments, but there is much lacking where high-tech action scenes and dreary direction replaces more of the thought in his work. Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly, however, could be part of that handful of films (the others Scott's Blade Runner and Spielberg's Minority Report) that do justice to his sensibilities as both a science-fiction spinner and social satirist. The technique he uses to add some imagination is, at first assumption, interesting but a little outdated. Rotoscoping the live action with animation has been done since the late 70's, and Linklater himself used it for maybe his most philosophically complex film Waking Life. Here though the same technique he used before is put into a narrative that, compared to Waking Life, is non-linear to the point that it is very faithful to Dick's work. But there's more than meets the eye, literally, to what Linklater is doing with his technique. It really does fit the mood of the film, one where to abscond is almost second nature, but the control over thought and the similarly powerful self-destruction comes at high prices for decent people.
To discuss the story would have to involve much explanation of the characters, who they may (or may not as case is) be, and how drugs make up the integral, damned environment. Keanu Reeves is in one of his best performances, arguably, as Bob Arcter, apart of dealing what is called Substance-D, a very detrimental narcotic that sooner or later starts to play serious tricks on a person's mind (left brain vs. right brain is in many scenes). But Reeves is also Officer Fred, who has been assigned to infiltrate a group of addicts who might lead him and his police force into the higher networks of drug distribution. Those around him in his "undercover" state are James Barris (Robert Downey Jr), Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson), Charles Freck (Rory Chochrane), and in one of the most crucial parts to the story Donna (Winona Ryder, quite a good comeback part). The theme of dehumanization around such technologies as a scanner in this film, where Fred/Arctor takes footage from the dingy home he usually hangs out in, are also akin to other pieces of Dick's work. I'm reminded of the tragedy in Minority Report of the cop who gets hooked on an illegal drug, and for what purpose in that story is made quite clear.
In A Scanner Darkly, however, the lines of morality are never totally clear, and the ambiguity goes along as little pieces start to fit together. While I might hold it as being one of the great Philip K. Dick adaptations, it's not to say that it is quite different from the others; this is not too far removed from what Linklater's style of dialog. To be sure to not please all in the sci-fi crowd, it's actually closer to being another of Linklater's 'in-the-now' stories of characters who talk, and talk some more, and it forces one to pay attention as opposed to having the dialog go light for more action. Downey Jr., who delivers one of the best supporting turns of the year, maybe has the most words to speak, as he's a character with few real morals but almost too much on his mind. And him along with Harrelson's character help define some of the pressing facts that go into looking at drugs in a movie. There's real paranoia, real mis-trust, a shifting of cognizance that becomes startling. One scene in particular, when Reeves is in bed with a woman and can't figure on if she is really SHE or not, and then goes over in in video, is an excellent take on the depths to which Substance-D- fictional for the film's sake but related to many real substances- and how the style connects very much so to the substance (no pun intended) in the film.
The style itself, provided by the animation directors, gives some immediate fascinations for the viewer. The whole idea of a character putting on a suit and being able to shift around faces and clothing at a second a clip provides such catching beats each time. The variations in certain scenes work very much as well. And there are more than a few instances where the style of rotoscoping itself, which makes the film seem immediately like a 'take drugs and watch this movie', is called into question. One might then ask before going into A Scanner Darkly, where the control of products that act as controls &/or inhibitors, is anti-drug or pro-drug. That I cannot quite, completely answer, though I might lean more to the former. Linklater, not just Dick, has several potent questions among others that may fizzle that are posed into the film, especially towards the last ten minutes. And what is even more surprising, and closer to being a relief, is that the film isn't even too preachy either. In fact, I was laughing through scenes in the middle bulk of the film, as Downey and Harrelson's characters made for some very sharp, witty lines and odd actions.
In short, it's got a different, 'quirky' artistry that combines some very good cinematography with so much that is tested with colors and shading and tones on the actors and settings that I will have to watch it again to take it all in. And the actors, more often than not, are completely fit in their roles, even when they suddenly reveal that all is not as it seems (I loved some of the twists that pop up). A cool premise and a superb use of abstractions as reality in the midst of the darkest satire of the year.
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