Monday, August 07, 2006

A Scanner Darkly: the refreshing summer alternative

Just as a reminder, I review movies for fun for my office employee newsletter. A few months ago, I started posting them here, too...

As the summer movie season enters the home stretch, the field at this point is pretty well established. You’ve got your blockbusters (“Superman Returns” and “Pirates of the Caribbean”), your bombs (“Lady in the Water,” “Poseidon”), your sleeper hits (“The Devil Wears Prada,” “An Inconvenient Truth”) and the virtually anonymous rest of the field falling through the rather sizable cracks in between.

And that’s a pretty unfortunate situation. Because not only are the “big” summer movies traditionally pretty bad, with their scads of potty humor and exploding planets and so forth, but they seem to engender this groupthink mentality, where people feel compelled to catch a few “must-see” films for water cooler purposes and leave the rest of them to rot in the hot summer sun. And thus, by mid-August a good number of movies have pretty much died on the vine.

So in that vein, I posit that a lot of good summer film watching lies off the beaten path, away from the multiplexes and action figures and collector Slurpee cups. This doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice your cinematic sweet tooth, however. There is wow factor aplenty in lots of films that don’t ever get a sniff of the $100 million mark. And this summer, I nominate “A Scanner Darkly” as just such a film.

Based on the 1977 novel of the same name by pulp sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick, “A Scanner Darkly” is set in a dystopian future where 20 percent of the population is hooked on a mysterious drug known as Substance D. Because of Substance D, the world has become a much more dangerous place, with police forces employing shadowy technology to invade citizens’ privacy in the name of safety.

(The entire film, by the way, is animated, using a vividly colored and amazingly lifelike method called rotoscoping. Director Richard Linklater digitally filmed the story in live action and then transferred it to animation. If you’re any kind of animation buff, this alone is worth the price of admission. Each minute of the film apparently required 500 hours of work.)

As far as the acting goes, and in the interest of full disclosure, I do want to warn you that Keanu Reeves has the starring role in this film, as stoner/cop Robert Arctor. I know, I know—we all hate Keanu. And if we say we like him, we’re just being ironic. Fair enough. But Keanu’s not too bad in this. Since he is, indeed, playing a stoner, he basically just has to act like himself. And, thankfully, the animation helps gloss over those gape-mouthed moments of acting when flies seem to be landing on his tongue. So that’s good.

As for the rest of the cast, it’s pretty much an all-star lineup of Actors Who Are At Least Partially Famous For Being Stoners. Robert Downey, Jr. (as the wonderfully creepy James Barris), Winona Ryder, Woody Harrelson, and Rory Cochrane (best known for his role as wasted high schooler Slater in “Dazed and Confused,” another Linklater project) all hold prominent roles. Just a murderer’s row right there.

So the film unfolds, Keanu does Keanu things, themes and parallels emerge, and the intrigue deepens. Now if this all seems a little spacey, well, you’re half right. The story at times comes across like a druggy vision of the future, complete with inarticulated paranoia and that scatterbrained feeling of trying to do or say too much. The film could stand to be simplified in places. That said, there are enough instances of genuine humor that the viewer doesn’t feel he or she is supposed to take it too seriously. And although it’s spread a bit too thin in places, the plot and characters are intriguing enough to keep the viewer engaged, and the ending does pay off.

So now that the bloom is off the rose for many summer movies, and the path to the blockbusters has been beaten into dust, perhaps it’s time to look for an alternative. The visually appealing, satisfyingly odd, and oddly satisfying “A Scanner Darkly” has that quality in spades.

- A Scanner Darkly [
Rotten Tomatoes]

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