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Review by Gary Chew

"A Scanner Darkly"

1977 interview with author Philip K. Dick about his book, A Scanner Darkly

GARY CHEW/Sacramento

It was ROCK 98-Sacramento's turn to host this movie screening. The film was Richard Linklater's "A Scanner Darkly." ("Wow, this is going to be so cool," I thought.) The FM station was holding the expectant crowd aurally hostage in the cinema with the signal it was broadcasting across this neck of The California Woods. Do I need to tell you (Can you hear me?) THAT THE AUDIO WAS UP ALL THE WAY, AND THAT IT WAS VERY, VERY HEAVY METAL? It was stuff like I'd never heard before blaring from the theater's super-sized speakers. When I put a finger in each ear, I found I could actually hear what was coming from them more clearly. (Now that's phildickian.) Anyway, I complained to one of the publicity house gentlemen honchoing the event. He was so kind as to have the sound cranked down a bit to a level where my ears almost stopped bleeding.

Then I mused how devotees of this music could be interested in a movie inspired by the writings of Philip K. Dick. It seems that their interests would more akin to films of Adam Sandler, Jack Black and Owen Wilson. But, the house was packed, and everybody was ready for some serious hallucinatory rotoscoping with Keanu, Robert, Winona and Woody. Again: Wow!

Besides using lots of drugs, Philip K. Dick also read the Bible:

"For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part: but then shall I know even as also I am known." I Corinthians 13:12

Clearly, in the dark

Clearly, in the dark

Keanu Reeves delivers these lines at one point in the movie, "What does a scanner see? Does a scanner see into me? Into us? Clearly or darkly? " The title of the film (and Dick's novel) is the answer to the question. There's just a lot of stuff one needs to know, up front, in order to get the meaning. I had yet to see one frame of the movie and I was already glad that Linklater hadn't put Adam Sandler, Jack Black and Owen Wilson in "A Scanner Darkly."

So, the Scanner---seven years into the future, whenever you see the movie or read the novel, from now---is technology a narco-government (not the NSA in this instance) employs to electronically observe druggies in Anaheim, California. One of the undercover narcs is Keanu Reeves' addicted character. He's become hooked through his efforts at effectively apprehending drug dealers and users, especially those abusing the highly addictive, "Substance D"...or "Slow Death."

Reeves lives with two other (non-narc) buddies realistically portrayed by Robert Downey, Jr. and Woody Harrelson. It's clear these two have done some serious research into their roles. They're really convincing; especially that over-the-top dude, Downey. With the use of other sci-fi technology, Dick (and Linklater's screenplay) manipulates the story so that Reeves is assigned to surveil himself and his two roomies. Occasionally, Reeves is required to spy on his frigid (but attractive), drug-dealing girlfriend. She's played by Winona Ryder: The Sweetheart of Petaluma and Saks Fifth Avenue.

Winona Ryder

The rotoscopically-enhanced Winona Ryder

As a small child, Philip K. Dick suffered the death of his twin sister. And, thus, it's believed by many that separation trauma is at the heart of the duality dilemmas found throughout his work. It permeates "A Scanner Darkly." The double dealing and paranoiac betrayals in the film become so complex that you may want to take a pad and pencil along to the theater. However, the most important twist in the story, for me, came not surprisingly.

But I was surprised at how well the visual affect of the movie kept it going, despite slow, and sometimes, not too funny moments of dialogue here and there. Earlier, I mentioned rotoscoping. That's the term used to explain what it is that makes "A Scanner Darkly" look so different on screen. There's lots of technical information that goes with it, but suffice it to tersely say, the Linklater film looks like a live-action comic book. The actors did the film as a typical live-action shoot. Then the animators and cyber stuff were brought in to embellish and transform the film into a compelling, heightened state of visual reality. Wow! Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds.

Director Linklater is to be applauded for the project. "Scanner" surely is a new wrinkle for the feature film, although Linklater did use the same process in his 2001 picture, "Waking Life." The sour note which must now be sounded relates not so much to poor filmmaking, but more, I think, to Linklater's strict adherence to Dick's novel. Although I've found what I've read by Dick to be strange and fascinating, "A Scanner Darkly" isn't a screenplay. It's a novel. Linklater should have found a way to rev the script up some for more forward motion, while maintaining the substance and schizophrenic tone of Dick's literature.

The eyes of Texas are upon you, 
All the live long day. 
The eyes of Texas are upon you, 
You cannot get away. 
Do not think you can escape them, 
At night, or early in the morn'. 
The eyes of Texas are upon you, 
'Till Gabriel blows his horn!

The eyes of Texas are upon you

Dick's novel takes me back to the late 60s and early 70s. He published it in 1977, with the setting as seven years in the future. (Hmmm, 1984? Yes, a very good year, by George.) But the movie has a retro feel to it, despite its futuristic spy technology and the "scramble suits" that Reeves and his fellow narc officers wear to hide their identities. It's amplified by the fact there are no allusions made to surveillance of U.S. citizens which has intensified since 9-11. So, the movie is timely while not making any overt connections with today's official peeping toms. It will likely survive as a modest cult feature, not on the order of "Rocky Horror Picture Show" or "Harold and Maude," but a film to reflect on further into the future than a mere seven years, and much longer than any movie with Adam Sandler, Jack Black or Owen Wilson in it.

Not unlike Charlie Parker, some say Philip K. Dick was a paranoid drug addict who mused philosophically so long as the drugs were good. I believe he was much more than that. And you may tend to agree with me as you watch how "A Scanner Darkly" concludes. Suddenly, the moviegoer realizes that Philip K. Dick had a good heart, missed his twin sister and cared about others; especially his friends.

He said of himself:

"I am a fictionalizing philosopher, not a novelist; my novel and story-writing ability is employed as a means to formulate my perception. The core of my writing is not art but truth. Thus what I tell is the truth, yet I can do nothing to alleviate it, either by deed or explanation."


Official "A Scanner Darkly" site.

Opens 7/14 at the AMC Southroads 20.

Check Yahoo Movies-Tulsa for showtimes.

Gary Chew can be reached at garychew@comcast.net.

Copyright © 2006, Gary Chew. All rights reserved.

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