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In the Dazed and Confused Future: Linklater's A Scanner Darkly

The Stop Smiling Film Review

Keanu Reeves in Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly

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Friday, July 14, 2006

A Scanner Darkly
Directed by Richard Linklater
In theaters now

Reviewed by Nick Pinkerton

The landscape of A Scanner Darkly is an Über Alles California of the dystopian near-future, “seven years from now,” per the opening caption. Could there be any other kind of future than “dystopian?” If that's hard to imagine, we may have source-novel author Philip K. Dick to blame for it. Addiction to “Substance D,” a gelcap drug with vague, unexplained effects, is at epidemic levels. Heroes are scarce in the face of this crisis: the company that's been singularly successful in rehabilitating addicts through its “voluntary privatized gulags,” a bureaucratic AA called New-Path, may also be responsible for creating the junkies; the government agencies attempting to clamp down on the spread of the drug have adopted civil-liberty-flouting Big Brother techniques (license plates now prominently sport bar codes); and the users we'll meet, far from a merry subterranean band of dope-enlightened brothers-in-arms (see The Matrix, with its bogus red-pill-or-green-pill dilemma and rave-till-dawn resistance rallies), are a bunch of yammering, paranoiac, backbiting narcs who can't get it together enough to clear an abandoned shopping cart out of their lawn, much less topple the illuminati.

Director Richard Linklater, as smart and mercurial a moviemaker as is working today, has shown a capacity for callow bumper-sticker politicizing - anyone else remember that insipid gun control PSA shoehorned into the jumble of Waking Life? It's a relief, then, to see that his murky Scanner Darkly isn't revamped as an “as relevant now as ever” frontal strike on surveillance culture, the Bush II American Empire, or any such popular arthouse piñatas. It's a far thornier, more engaged thing — instead of exorcising and externalizing tyranny into, say, the Wachowskis' silly raging against the white-men-in-black-suits machine, it's engaged with the more troubling mechanisms of self-sabotage that exist within the larger architecture of oppression. The applicable adage: “Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not after you.”

The film closely follows Philip K. Dick's 1977 novel of the same name, a sci-fi-abstracted musing on the author's post-divorce immersion in early Seventies SoCal drug culture, during which he consumed copious quantities of amphetamines and 'ludes. Dick was hanging around the scene at a time when things had gotten scary; in contrast to the google-eyed Utopian gloop printed by pioneer users (Aldous Huxley's execrable Island, for example) Dick was dealing with busts, harsh buzzes, freak-out suicides, and fingernails chewed to the quick. Firsthand experience seems singularly important when working in the headspaces of drug-art, and cred seeps off Scanner's backstory (the film, like the book, ends with a moving naming-names memorial to the drug deaths in Dick's circle - “punished entirely too much for what they did”). The casting of Linklater's adaptation seems to have been undertaken with this in mind, based as much on rap sheets as resumes: the film's War On Drugs-veteran principals include perpetual rehabber Robert Downey Jr., Gen X “It” girl/problem chick Winona Ryder, and vocal marijuana law reform-advocate Woody Harrelson.

Scanner's foggy-edged story comes together in a fashion that's anything but linear - you don't often understand more of what's happening than its protagonist does, which isn't much - though synopsis demands that it be made marginally so: it concerns Bob Arctor (Reeves), an undercover agent whose schedule is schizophrenically divided. He slums at a suburban ranch-style crash-pad with his girlfriend-in-title-alone, sex-phobic cokehead Donna (Ryder, better than she's been in years), and his drug buddies, overeducated conspiracy-theorist/ half-ass inventor Barris (gracefully tic-seized Downey, sporty in architect glasses) and beach mutt Luckman (Harrelson). But when it's time to go to work, he zips into a “scramble suit” that hides him behind an anonymous, perpetually rippling amalgamation of a million possible personas - his higher-ups don't even know what he looks like - and becomes “Agent Fred,” sifting through the surveillance footage of his own activities, tightening the noose around himself while moving the authorities towards a higher-level bust. But somewhere in the course of his “investigation,” Fred's become addicted to Substance D, fizzling his synapses, and he has trouble keeping Fred and Bob straight.

Even if you haven't read Dick, his prolific output has fertilized the last thirty-plus years of pop culture to the point that you've seen the future that he envisioned. Outside of high-profile adaptations, among them Blade Runner, Minority Report and Total Recall, he's been required reading for generations of hip who's whos; it's hard to imagine The Fall without him, and certainly not the blanched anodyne lull of Radiohead (who contribute to the film's soundtrack). The author boasts a celebrity cult second only to L. Ron Hubbard - no less a Phil Dick fan than Axl Rose, expressing a not-surprising overestimation of frontman importance, told Rolling Stone: “I was a little scared when I saw they were making [Scanner Darkly] into a movie starring Keanu, but I guess if he can handle The Matrix, he can do this.” Of course Keanu's greatest virtue as a film actor is his near-complete, almost Bressonian opacity. It's something of an open secret that he's one of the most awkward line readers ever to sustain a Hollywood career; when he bears down and makes up his mind to really act, as for the few monologues he handles in Scanner, nothing on-screen works. But slack and spaced-out on the corner of the couch, he makes the just-about perfect cipher protagonist (see his nonentity Harker in Bram Stoker's Dracula, or his turn in The Devil's Advocate). Keanu's place is not to do, but to be done to - I can't think of an actor who's handled a straight sex scene with the gawping passivity of Reeves as he's being worked over by Ione Skye in River's Edge.

Moving past Keanu, if there's a real star to this film, it's the process by which it was made: Scanner sees Linklater returning to the Rotoshop digitally processed cartooning that he first used in his 2001 collaboration with techie animator Bob Sabiston, Waking Life. That film's “innovation” was much trumpeted; for my part, I saw nothing in it that Ralph Bakshi's cell-rotoscoped films of the Seventies (Wizards, Lord of the Rings) hadn't done better, or at least more beautifully. The cartooning was incessantly, irritatingly, literal-mindedly “playful” - a character expresses fear of being “a cog,” and lo, his head morphs into a cog. More than a handful of critics compared the movie's palette to animated Impressionism; it seemed to me closer to the Photoshop 'paint bucket' tool than Monet, and certainly not much more artful than the “cinematic” interludes in the old Flashback: The Quest for Identity computer game (a remarkably Phil Dick-inspired piece of software, that). Since then, the blush of the new has faded from the technique; Sabiston's work appeared in Lars Von Trier's buffoonish The Five Obstructions, and his innovations made possible those Charles Schwab commercials which contributed to making the last Super Bowl one of the most excruciating television events of all time (other factors included the constant cut-aways to Jerome Bettis's parents and pretty much any expression at all that crossed Hines Ward's face).

I can't say the process has gotten any prettier - Scanner, stripped of Waking Life's doodly flourishes, is a plain ugly movie - but it has developed a greater suppleness. The animation works with the film's first-person comedown vibe; the way that light seems to lurch rather than shift across surfaces gives everything a funny, seasick sort of atmosphere that's incrementally ratcheted as Arctor slumps into complete burnout and everything goes bleary with tracers. The motive for turning to the Sabiston's process here is also, I suspect, at least partially financial - to produce a professional-looking live-action sci-fi movie in the sci-fi-sounding year 2006 for Scanner's estimated $20 million budget would be a near-impossibility; Rotoshop makes potentially hypercomplex CGI like the scramble suits cost-effective.

Whatever the case, Scanner is certainly a more intriguing, far less presupposing movie than Waking Life; when the protagonist of the latter film described his dream - our movie - as not just a dream, but “the dream,” it seemed like Linklater was urging us to see Waking Life as not a film, but the film. Scanner, similarly, seems like a bid to revive that near-extinct genre, the counterculture-catering “head” movie, but it's often closer to Cheech & Chong terrain than to basking awe-filled at awful stoner profundities. Scenes of Arctor's tweaked-out household working itself into elaborate arias of conspiracy, prompted by the smallest of day-to-day anomalies (an unclaimed roach left in the ashtray, a breakdown on the highway, a discrepancy on just how many speeds there are on a secondhand bike), are meant to play as Cheech & Chong did, through the comedy of recognition - you may laugh if you've lived in or visited this house before, or if you've ever gotten swept off following some obscure splurt of druggy inspiration into an adventure that seems totally inscrutable the day after.

I was rarely as amused by Scanner as I was seemingly expected to be; a little of Downey's aggressive, smacking mincing goes a very long way for me (I know that's the point, and that people on speed aren't famous for knowing when to shut up, but I still can't distinguish most of what he's doing here from, say, his performance in Back to School). Still, unaffected idiosyncrasy is a quality that should never be undervalued, and Scanner Darkly can't be denied that. It is unpretty, it is exhausting in its yammering, yes, but the very fact of its putting forth a vision of a future that's scented with bongwater, revolving around the axis of a sloppy living room, is enough to recommend it beyond whatever splendidly expensive bauble is being trotted out in multiplexes next Friday after next Friday ad infinitum. Ultimately, what's more resonant: a world where we're forced to wear identical tracksuits by an unseen Big Brother oligarchy, or one where we aid our own holocaust through sleeping in and forgetting to take out the trash?


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