Blu-ray Review: A Scanner Darkly

A Scanner Darkly
Blu-ray | DVD
Directed by Richard Linklater
Starring Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Winona Ryder, Woody Harrelson, Rory Cochrane
Warner Bros. Home Entertainment
Release date: September 7, 2010

Here is a film meant to be existentially frightening. It shows the power of drugs and the frailty of the human spirit, two main contributions that can put the human soul at an extreme vulnerability. Director Richard Linklater never diverts its attention to concentrate on anything else. Only when we realize the descent the characters in A Scanner Darkly have to go through do we get disturbed. Like most great science-fiction films, one succeeds the best when it explores the unexplored depths of the human mind.

The film’s unusual look lures us into its web of disheartening themes. Like his previous film that dealt with extensively analyzing of dreams, Waking Life, A Scanner Darkly adopts that film’s visual flair by using an unorthodox way of mixing animation with reality. The actors, décor, and environment inhabit their true form, but the difference is the way they are presented; in animation. It is a laborious process to achieve this but the tone the film carries throughout the movie because of this animation is something completely fascinating and odd.

We are seven years in the future when the movie begins. We aren’t enveloped by any futuristic architecture. This isn’t that kind of sci-film movie. We are grounded astutely in a casual neighborhood in Anaheim, California. Our attention is focused on four drug abusers. One of them is Bob (Keanu Reeves) and he lets live with him his friends James (Robert Downey Jr.) and Ernie (Woody Harrelson), along with his sexually opposed girlfriend Donna (Winona Ryder). All of them abuse what seems to be the universal drug of this era called substance-d. The drug is very addictive and as one character states, “You are either on substance-d or have never tried it.” It deteriorates the mind and one’s will with successive dosages.

The one thing representing a sense of the faraway future is a suit that makes one indistinguishable, containing an infinite of identities when it is put on. This belongs to the law enforcement who hires individuals to go undercover with it on with hopes of exposing visual evidence of people abusing substance-d capsules. Bob is an undercover cop. Even though he and his friends participate in abusing the drug, he still tries to expose people, not knowing he is bringing his own self down for being too much involved with the illegal substance. This causes him to question his own identity. He is working for two institutions that demand the truth: the authorities and his own self.

Slowly and gradually, Linklater, in his most potent films, exposes to us to themes that put into perspective what it is to be human. These themes aren’t meant to be easily perceptible by any means. His stories have the tendency of layering an array of intricate meanings upon one another (like this film), but are told in such a concise manner that it pretty much eliminates all complexities. A Scanner Darkly, adapted from the classic sci-fi novel by Philip K. Dick, is a complex story, an unabashed one to be exact. But when a filmmaker, as Linklater proves here, confronts complexity with sheer confidence and originality the result leaves one shocked and shaken.

This film can trick people. There is nothing childish in this animated film. The animation seems to be just a false façade; only by peeling it back does one see the enormity of the film’s ambitions and the heavy topics that are attached with it. The film burrows so deeply into the obsessed minds of our characters who are so persistent and desperate to seek and capture truth.

When has a Linklater character not undertaken this impossible task of capturing truth and approaching the impenetrable human soul? We experienced it with the love-at-first-sight film Before Sunrise (1995) and its sequel Before Sunset (2004), which reunited the two lovers after not having seen each other for nine years, only to talk about what could have been and intellectual, religious, and existential concepts. We went along for the psychological ride that was Waking Life (2001). Linklater wants to tackle questions that shake the human soul. He may succeed and he may fail. At least he takes the chances. A Scanner Darkly raises such thought provoking questions and it ceaselessly maintains its terror by doing so. It isn’t a terror that we associate with jumping out of our seats due to the act of fear, but a terror that lingers in our heads, forcing us to see this movie as something to be potentially true; a true cautionary tale.

HIGH-DEF Picture: This is one of the best animated transfers I have ever seen. So much dedication can be seen when you pause the movie and just look at the picture. Everything from tone, skin color, blacks and whites, distant and near images, everything is spot on. Having a weird image to begin with, due to the film being in live-action, I was a bit hesitant. Instead I was given a gorgeous surprise. Confronting this kind of task, by making actual reality into animation, the blu-ray transfer really makes evident the amount of time the people put in who were involved with the film. From the film’s first scene, a disastrous bedroom with clothes, dirt, and bugs multiplied throughout the room and filmed with artful ferocity, the film has us captured. The blu-ray captures this scene with such vitality that what ensues is more delicious eye candy.

Special Features

The Weight of the Line: Animation Tales; SD: 20min- Post production is discussed and how everyone involved with the film had to make two films. First they shoot the actual. Then a lengthy post-production process occurs. Animators are brought in to draw over the real image. This is a fascinating feature that goes into extensive detail the process of creating this kind of live-action image.

Commentary: Feature-length commentary by director Linklater, actor Keanu Reeves, producer and Philip K. Dick historian Jonathan Lethem. The panel reveals the insights of controversial author Philip K. Dick and the film’s production process.

Theatrical Trailer; SD- The trailer for “A Scanner Darkly” is displayed.

MOVIE: ***1/2 out of ****
HIGH-DEF: **** out of ****
Special Features: **1/2 out of ****

1 Comment »

  1. Great book and a really cool film.
    Excellent review!!

    Comment by Jerry — September 21, 2010 @ 9:24 pm

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