Cinema Signal:

Selected Stories of
Philip K. Dick
Works that were the basis of "Blade Runner", "Screamers", "Total Recall", "Minority Report" and "Paycheck."

. "A Scanner Darkly"

Anyone who has read the work of Philip K. Dick knows that the Sci-fi author can be understated to the point of confusion... even consternation. A filmmaker using one of his stories can be forgiven for a little elucidation and clarity to make his movie viable for an arthouse audience. Director Richard Linklater ("Waking Life") apparently decided faithfulness to the 1977 vision of a drug soaked future a higher value, which is unfortunate for anyone who minds being put into a state of disorientation.

In this Orange County future, identities are disguised easily and completely by the wearing of a "scramble suit," a piece of fabric that creates a succession of hologrammatic images instead of the real face within it, a fine tool for law enforcement in the masking of their own identities among thieves, addicts and each other. It's a time when the use of substance D, a new drug, has reached epidemic proportions and undercover agent Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) is assigned to track a group suspected by his government agency of being an important user-dealer. The trouble is, they don't know who he really is. Ah, well, beaurocratic ineptitude is nothing new.

Under scanning surveillance, his immediate superior who wears a scramble suit at all times when in the agency, doesn't realize the agent assigned to spy on Bob Arctor is Arctor himself. But, then, neither does Arctor know the true identity of the person that he's getting his instructions from.

Arctor's group includes a fine set of hyper individuals. There's the obsessively paranoid Freck who sees and feels roach-like creatures all over his body that at a later time disappear, as though they were inventions of his mind; Jim Barris (Robert Downey Jr) who is playing both sides against the middle by trying to rat on his friend to the very person at the agency who is leading the investigation against them all. And, finally, there's luckless Luckman (Woody Harrelson), a hyper individual with colorful ideas.

Arctor is more than a little interested in Donna (Winona Ryder), his supplier and drug dealer, both as a girlfriend and to learn who her source is. He's sweeter on her than interested in the drug, though his need to indulge to cover his real purposes sets him off on a mental slope of quick disintegration.

Why Jim Barris tries so hard to get something out of informing on his friend when he isn't aware of any personal danger, isn't explained. Nor are several other anamolies of the narrative. When disguised identities are finally disclosed after several yawn-inducing sequences, they produce more questions than they answer.

Music by Graham Reynolds has some appropriately surrealistic moments and Shane F. Kelly's photography provides a fine basis for the animation application.

Besides the fascinating visuals, this is not just scanning darkly, it's close to opaque. One must conclude that false identities and curious motivations play differently in the rotoscoped* world of film than in the literary universe of a Dick novel. Putting that aside, however, the effect of this will likely act as a booster shot to Linklater's cult status where narrative considerations are secondary.

[*The process of tracking contours and the rotated projection of photographed action image frames.]

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner
                                    Jules Brenner  

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Winona Ryder as the beauteous drug dealer Donna.
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