Friday, June 5, 2009

Expanded 11 Word Review: A Scanner Darkly

I have written an 11 Word Review a day (or the equivalent) since when I began the site in September of last year. That is approaching 300 reviews, or 3300 words. I have written considerably less reviews here, some of which have already been touched on by 11 Word Reviews. But today is the first of a series where I go on, in considerably more than 11 words, about a movie of my choice. Consider it a chance to say, in more than 11 words, what I think of some of my favorites (and least favorites, and some mediocre) movies.


I reviewed A Scanner Darkly (Linklater, 2006) on September 18th of last year. The movie is one of a series of filmic adaptations of stories by one of my favorite science fiction authors, Philip K Dick, (the others being such stories as Total Recall, Minority Report, and Blade Runner.) Dick’s stories are primarily interested in issues of perception and reality (and challenging those ideas,) which fits it in ideally with issues of Postmodernism, and this one is supposedly autobiographical to an extent, dealing with Dick’s own problems with drug use.

The film is a pretty faithful animated adaptation of the book, which is about Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves,) an Orange County undercover narcotics officer strung out on futuristic brain-altering drug Substance D and trying to investigate his drugged-out circle of friends (Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder.) On the way, Arctor’s does manage to solve the case, despite having a complete chemical-based psychotic break along the way.

First, let’s talk about the use of animation in this movie, similar to another Linklater movie Waking Life, which uses rotoscoping to animate on and around live action performances. This method starts out being jarring, but I was surprised at how quickly I got acclimated to it. The real use of this is to help make some of the more sci-fi elements of the movie (like the license plates on the car, and the blending scramble suits,) from being too jarring and bizarre.

The overall structure of the story has some weird disjointed moments, but these feel intentional and are definitely not disorienting, which is a difficult thing to pull off.

In terms of performances, there is one standout guy, Robert Downey Jr. Although he is one of the best actors in general (cf. Chaplin, Hearts and Souls, Tropic Thunder, Zodiac, and Iron Man as standout examples of his work.) I’d make a joke here about Downey having a lot of research about addiction, but I already did for the 11 Word Review. But he really does. While Woody Harrelson and Keanu Reeves are at best being stoners, and Freck (Rory Cochrane) is on some mix of meth and heroin. I can’t exactly tell just what Downey is trying to be on, and therein lies the charm.

(Also, in case you miss the joke: 6+3=9, but 6x3=18. Just say no, kids.)

Overall, this is a very cerebral movie to be sure. There’s a lot going on to make you think, and that’s certainly not a bad thing. You are able to build empathetic relationships to Arctor, but unfortunately, the overall isolation and anxiety of this film makes most of the characters, although fascinating to watch, unrelatable. This makes the ending and resolution of the movie somewhat unsatisfying for me. Maybe I just have a lack of tolerance for drug users. However, it is a fun movie up to the turn in the third act, and even though the resolution isn’t satisfying, I can hardly think of a better one.

I give it a B+. I’d recommend you check it out if you like science fiction/Philip K Dick, Postmodernism, or if you’re looking for something a little new and novel in your filmgoing experience.

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