Wednesday, July 19, 2006
A Scanner Darkly: Reviewed, Mulled Over, and Finally, Shrugged At
On Sunday afternoon, Peggy and I went over to the Tara and saw A Scanner Darkly, a film directed by Richard Linklater and adapted from a Philip K. Dick novel.
The film is set seven years into the future. America's current drug of choice is a mean little number called Substance D whose side effects include seeing bugs that aren't there, hyper-paranoia, and making the two halves of one's brain fight each other for primacy. Like marijuana, crack, and crystal meth before it, Substance D and those who use and sell it are target #1 in the War on Drugs, and the tools of the trade have become very sophisticated.
The film follows an undercover drug agent named "Fred" (played by Keanu Reeves) who works at the Orange County Sheriff's Department. Fred's undercover idenitity is Bob Arctor, a druggie who uses Substance D and pals around with a bunch of other D-heads, played by Robert Downie Jr. (who's hilarious) and Woody Harrelson (who tries to be). When he returns to his office at the OC Sheriff's Office, Fred wears a specially-designed suit that cycles through millions of other faces and torsos -- this so none of his colleagues in law enforcement can ever know what "Fred" really looks like. The cumulative effect of watching Fred in his suit is a little disorienting -- one second he's half black middle-aged woman and half white tattooed street kid, and the next he's half-white middle-aged businessman and half-Asian college girl. Maybe disorienting is the wrong word. Nauseating is better. Anyway, the plot, languid and slow-moving though it is, becomes slightly more engaging when Fred is assigned by his superiors to spy on himself.
The movie's not plot-heavy. Aside from the last 15 minutes, A Scanner Darkly concerns itself primarily with depicting the world of Substance D, particularly among those who are addicted to it. Most of the screen time is spent hanging out with Arctor and his D-stoner friends Jim Barris (Downie Jr.) and Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson). By lingering in their pharmalogically enhanced world, we get to see all of the negative side effects Substance D has on its users. One, they get very paranoid (and often with good reason). 2) They cease to make sense when they speak. So about half of the movie is chilling out with paranoid and incomprehensible idiots talking about whether a bike has the right number of gears, or experimenting with a homemade silencer. I laughed a lot during these scenes, mostly because Robert Downie Jr's delivery is brilliant -- he makes most of his lines sound improvised, which only amps up the humor. Though these scenes have humor in them, there is also a deep undercurrent of squalor, both environmental and mental, and hopelessness. A lot of the story is based on Dick's own drug experiences and you can almost hear his voice beneath the soundtrack whispering, "Don't do drugs. Don't do drugs." Because absolutely nothing good comes out of this kind of drug use, for anyone. By the time the credits rolled, I felt a little wrung out. I was happy to be out of the world of Substance D.
The animation aspect of the film, the rotoscoping, was visually compelling but I'm not sure what it added. It didn't really feel "trippy" if that's what they were going for. It was just interesting.
A Scanner Darkly isn't a bad movie, but it felt pointless, which itself was probably part of the point. There will always be drugs, there will always be people who use them, and our own governments will expend countless dollars and man-hours to combat it. The effort will always be futile and all of it, the abuse and the work to stop the abuse, is meaningless in the end. I sense that there's more to be gleaned from this movie and probably the Philip K. Dick novel that it's adapted from -- themes of betrayal, identity, and power -- but I wasn't inspired by the film to plumb its recesses for deeper meaning, or to read the novel. It left me kind of cold. Well-done and not boring, but not my cup of tea.
[Finally: What is it with Philip K. Dick and his weird pseudo-WASPy character names? In Blade Runner the hero was Deckard. In Minority Report, the hero was Anderton. Now Arktor. It's like the extent of his thinking on naming his protagonists was to think of a regular boring white-guy name, like Decker, Anderson or Archer, and then just change a letter or add one. It gets to a point where you can identify a Philip K. Dick story by just the goofy last name of the story's hero. Anyway, thought I'd get that off my chest.]
One last thing. The trailer is up for The Prestige, Christopher Nolan's new film. The trailer's tantalizing, but more importantly, the film, starring Christian Bale, Michael Caine, and Hugh Jackman, looks impossibly good.