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"A Scanner Darkly": What Does a Scanner See? Confusion and Delight.

When I first saw the trailer for A Scanner Darkly, my perception of the story, characters and director was thrown out the window. All I cared about was this animation style that they had chosen to use for this film and I knew I had to see it for that alone. The only drawback to my viewing it was that it only occurred a day ago—the incessantly long wait from trailer (which I believe I first originally saw on the Constantine DVD) to theatrical release (which was limited and made a very short appearance in my area) to DVD release made my anticipation to see this film all that much higher, which may have been a good or bad thing, I’ve truly yet to decide.

For those unfamiliar with the film, it is an adaptation of the Philip K. Dick novel of the same name and follows the dual life of Bob and Fred (played by Keanu Reeves) and his home and work life. The story boils down to a tale of paranoia, stemming from the use of drugs and the actual existence of the government spying on these individuals.

The film is a veritable mind blower upon first viewing, not in that it is hard to believe the events in the film could happen in present day life, but more in the vein of how your head feels after watching a movie like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. This is partly due to the drastic whip-around ending that the film gives the viewer, as it takes us from the paranoid aspect of Bob’s life to the landscape of rehabilitation that the characters so dread throughout the film. Some may feel that the story was too disorienting to follow, which plays a big part in the confusion, but when you begin seeing threads woven in the beginning that play out in the end, you realize you just weren’t paying close enough attention when you first watched it.

I still don’t claim to fully understand the film, even after viewing it twice and listening to the commentary on the DVD. I’ve no doubt a few more viewings will even things out, but the first viewing will definitely leave you feeling a bit out of it as your brain tries to figure out exactly what it just watched.

The disorientation you feel afterwards can also be attributed to the rotoscoping animation that the film is given. It’s easy to be swept into the world as it looks nearly identical at times (a point in the film when the camera pans up on a tow truck’s grill looks like real-world footage and not animation) but, like Bob/Fred, you begin to lose it around the same time he does, as the “scrambler” suits that the government officials wear start scrambling and become even more disorienting to look at.

While on the subject of the animation, it looks even better than what little I had seen in the trailers. Some of the scenes are downright beautiful to look at, if only for the simplicity of the colors and atmosphere of the film itself. The highway sequence as well as the nighttime sequence of Bob witnessing a protestor being hauled off is amazing eye candy to perceive. Even for animation buffs that don’t enjoy the story this film tells, there is no way they can walk away from this film and not be impressed by the work the animators did on the film, particularly on the epic corn field shot at the end of the film.

The performances by the robust cast in this film are something to seen as well. Keanu Reeves plays the dual role of Bob and Fred remarkably well which even includes the two slipping together towards the end of the film. Woody Harrelson and Rory Cochrane are extremely funny as the two most paranoid characters in the film and Robert Downey Jr. pulls off a performance that I find hard to describe—it’s both schizophrenic and incredibly well organized. Winona Ryder’s on-screen time is a lot less than the rest of the cast, but her acting and character really shines through in the climatic last ten minutes or so of the movie.

I feel odd recommending a film to people when I myself don’t fully understand what I saw, but that’s part of the beauty of the film, as it stands with me currently, that you really don’t know what to think afterwards. The things I ended up dwelling on most about the film didn’t even have to do with the drug heavy atmosphere or the paranoia of governments watching you, but simply more about how much the characters knew of one another and how everything linked back together.

The DVD
Released only in a widescreen presentation, A Scanner Darkly comes in a standard amaray case with no insert and disc art that mirrors the cover. I wish Warner Bros. would start putting some things inside these DVDs, as I’ve opened too many of their DVDs lately that have nothing in the slot for papers/advertisements.

The menus are quick and surprisingly non-animated, something that even the website for A Scanner Darkly managed to pull off. In any case, music is over the main menu only and all menus are easy to navigate with simple text options.

Video is presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.85 Widescreen, not the 2.40 “matted” Widescreen that the back of the insert would lead you to believe) and is pristine looking, as it should be. There is some compression, but that is to be expected and there is thankfully no interlacing from what I could tell. Colors are clean, vibrant and watching this movie on a small television would be a crime to the transfer. I’ve no doubt a high-definition print of this film would look downright amazing on the right setup. Audio is crystal clear, though the 5.1 surround sound track really isn’t utilized to its fullest extent. Most of the dialogue is center channel focused and the haunting music properly drowns the room with its ambience without swallowing the other sounds the film has to offer.

Special features include the theatrical trailer, two featurettes and full-length commentary. The first featurette covers the shooting of the film with discussions from Philip K. Dick’s family, the directors and all of the main actors of the film. This featurette also includes footage and audio of Philip K. Dick as he discusses the book, his life and his paranoia. Those who are even remotely interested in learning more about the films origins need to watch this special feature.

The second featurette covers the animation portion of the film and includes interviews with many of the lead animators on the film. There are a lot of candid responses to their thoughts of the film and the sheer aspect of some of the shots (towards the end we learn just how difficult that wide corn field shot was to animate) is discussed as well. Animation buffs will want to head right for this featurette if they’re interested in how the film was animated and just how much work goes into rotoscoping (as it turns out, it’s way more work than I ever thought!)

For those who want to understand the film a bit better, the commentary is essential listening. The commentary includes people from nearly all areas of the films production: Keanu Reeves (actors), Richard Linklater (writer/director), Tommy Pallotta (producer), Jonathan Lethem (author) and Philip K. Dick’s daughter, Isa Dick Hackett. The most vocal on the track is Linklater and Hackett, with Reeves speaking up occasionally, more so towards the end of the film. Pallotta spoke a lot about the animation aspects of the film, while Letham didn’t speak nearly as much—in fact, nothing he said really stood out to me, so it’s very possible he was too enthralled with the film to talk.

Overall A Scanner Darkly is very much worth your time to watch and the special features are just enough for a movie of this size. The DVD gives us a look into how the film’s production went and the commentary lets us in on more behind the scenes stories, antics and thoughts from the cast and crew. Be sure to give at least a rental on December 19th.

Ace the Bathound previously wrote a review of the theatrical release titled, Taking a Dim View of “A Scanner Darkly”.

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  1. […] Bird Boy has additionally written a review of the DVD release titled, “A Scanner Darkly”: What Does a Scanner See? Confusion and Delight. […]

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