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Darkly Brilliant - The Summer's Best Trip

Review for The News Connection ...

A Scanner Darkly
, starring Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Wynona Ryder, Woody Harrelson and Rory Cochrane. Based on the novel by Phillip K. Dick. Adapted for the screen by Richard Linklater. Directed by Richard Linklater. Rated “R” by the MPAA for language, drug content, sexuality and brief violence.

A Scanner Darkly: A trip you will never forget.

“What does a scanner see? Into the head? Into the heart? Does it see into me? Clearly? Or darkly?”

-- Bob Arctor

This line, though delivered late in the film, is perhaps the most important key, of many keys, to understanding A Scanner Darkly: a vivid, hallucinogenic, complex tale of society gone horribly wrong.

Written by late novelist Phillip K. Dick, author of well-known science fiction classics such as “Blade Runner” and “Minority Report” - not to exclude lesser-known classics “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” and “The Man in the High Castle” – A Scanner Darkly is a tale derived from the author’s experience with drugs. Make no mistake, this is a “drug movie,” if there is such a cliché. However, Half Baked it is not.

The first element of this film that will likely draw people into the multiplex is the artistic style Director Linklater has employed. Shot with real actors in real environments, as many conventional films are today, A Scanner Darkly takes a nod from Linklater’s last film, Waking Life, which featured said actors on screen, but not. On display is a strange type of animation that is laid over the film, giving it a drawn, otherworldly, artificial quality. It certainly fits in with the thematic use of drugs, quite literally taking the viewer on a trip.

A Scanner Darkly introduces its characters in a very sinister way. The film opens with sub-character Charles Freck (Rory Cochrane) tripping bugs. As he hallucinates aphids crawling all over his body, he scratches himself feverishly under a spout of water, desperate for the torment to stop. This is a side-effect of the drug “Substance D,” which has wrought upon American society a plague unlike any before it.

Robert Downey Jr. as James Barris

Nearly 20 percent of Americans are addicted to Substance D. They develop all sorts of problems, from split personalities to uncontrollable hallucinations, finally disconnecting from reality altogether. As a doctor explains the drug to the main character, Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves), the two hemispheres of the brain begin to compete, slowly leaving those addicted powerless to interact with the world. Only one private corporation in America is equipped to deal with the hoards of burnt-out junkies left in the wake of Substance D: New Path, which specializes in what one character accurately calls “the new slavery.”

The catch: Arctor is also a cop. He works undercover for the government, operating a node of the Scanner, the ultimate in surveillance technology. The government is portrayed as an all-seeing, all-knowing, tyrannical behemoth, constantly monitoring every one of its citizens’ movements and communications. The scanner sees all, as Arctor knows all too well. But the audience does not know the full reach of the plot, which holds several masked twists and turns not decipherable to the popcorn-inclined moviegoer. Though the dramatic arch does not reach the heights of some of Phillip K. Dick’s other film adaptations – take Blade Runner for example – close attention paid is an investment with significant return.

Keanu Reeves as Bob Arctor

A Scanner Darkly is not typical summer fare. Linklater’s films never fit that mold. It is complicated, metaphorical, visually stunning, oddly and uncomfortably funny, and intellectually challenging. News-junkies will spot a cameo by radio and Internet personality Alex Jones of InfoWars.com. Likewise, any citizen of America concerned with preserving the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, which protects society at large from unreasonable search and seizure, will appreciate the projected evolution of spying technology employed by America’s current government, and what it could mean for “The American Experience” in roughly a decade.

A Scanner Darkly asks a lot of questions about the drug war, the surveillance state, and what freedom and reality really are. Like all of Phillip K. Dick’s writings, it is highly provocative, lucid and perturbing. It will remain in your mind longer than a hit of acid. But in this case, such a statement is not a bad thing.

If you appreciate challenging, intelligent, self-aware art, get yourself to a theater. But if the epitome of your summer movie tour was Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, you will be much happier just skipping it.

Rating: four out of five

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