Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Scanner Darkly (Movie Review)

I'm about to say something hopelessly uncool:

I didn't find this film to be anywhere near as compelling as I'd hoped. That's not to say it's bad... just that expected more from a Philip K. Dick adaptation — especially one directed by Richard Linklater, whose Waking Life (2001) I watched three times just to make sure I didn't miss anything.

I'm not being fair. Scanner Darkly is good. But my expectations were, perhaps, a bit too high. If you've read many of my movie reviews here, you know my high expectations often interfere with my final analysis.

That said, Darkly wasn't so much a futuristic film as it was a look into the past. In fact, it employs only one piece of technology not yet available in our present: holographic suits that are ever-changing, thereby enabling cops to work undercover without even their superiors knowing their true identity. Beyond that, even the "scanner" itself reminds me of various pieces of existing technology... devices that enable police to monitor our every move with wiretapping, hidden cameras, etc.

But I don't think Dick was really trying for another blatant sci-fi piece when he wrote the 1977 novel that inspired this film. Rather, Dick's story pays homage to the friends he lost to drug use in the Beat era and beyond.

The plot goes a little like this: a highly addictive chemical substance, known simply as "D," has much of the world under its spell. Problem being its "perks" are substantial and the side effects don't surface until after weeks or months of abuse — and even then, the symptoms are initially so subtle, addicts don't realize there's a problem. But those side effects become increasingly worse and are generally permanent (as well as psychological) in nature.

An undercover cop (Fred, played by Keanu Reeves) is asked to monitor a suspected drug dealer, Bob Arctor. But Fred has been taking "D" to appear more legitimate in his undercover work, and the side effects are just beginning to surface: not the least of which is confusion over his assignment, since he is Bob Arctor. Or at least he pretends to be Bob Arctor. He isn't really sure.

But he takes to monitoring he and his "friends" (or Arctor's friends) nevertheless, an interesting twist that — for me — spoke more about dependence on drugs than it did covert government control (another frequent theme in Dick's stories).

Also of note, until I hit "play" on the remote control, I didn't realize this film was done in rotoscope animation, a technique previously employed by Linklater in Waking Life. But given the long-term psychological effects of "D" — not the least of which is split personality — I thought this technique worked rather well for the story.



michele said...

As usual, your analysis is astute. I too found the film to be disappointing when I thought of it as a Philip K. Dick film. When I let go of that and enjoyed it on its own merits, it improved greatly. Fred's difficulty in determining what is real and unreal struck me as one of the best filmic examples I've seen of the 'unreliable' narrator. And Robert Downey Jr.'s character's paranoia was just so absolutely perfect... probably the closest part of the film to what Dick would've envisioned. The trick for me was letting go of my expectations and just letting the movie be what it was.

Academic Advisor said...

I haven't seen this film, and I don't think I will. I used to enjoy PKD film adaptations, but that was before I knew who PKD was. Now that I've read more of his work, as well as many Cyberpunk and Posthumanist texts in general, I have a hard time with cheesy attempts to render them on film. I think the experimentation of this type of cinema was more interesting and fun when I could see it AS experimentation instead of stabs at clever interpretation. And unlike Michele, I've never been able to turn off the part of my brain that says, "Unh uh, that's not what happened." Or how it happened, or the way it happened, etc.

Besides, Keeana Reeves? I know it's cliche to criticize his acting, but why is he always in these things?

thirdworstpoetinthegalaxy said...

Michele - Good point in regards to the unreliable narrator.

Michele & AcAd - I'm actually glad I didn't read this novel. I still cringe to think of what Hollywood did to The Scarlet Letter in the most recent (Demi Moore) adaptation. Granted, Hawthorne is no PKD... but the premise is still the same.

I, too, have a difficult time watching an adaptation without writhing in my seat at every variation from the book.

(The Harry Potter series — and The Princess Bride — being rare exceptions to this).