Monday, July 17, 2006

A Scanner Darkly

A Scanner Darkly (4.5/5)

My favorite Philip K. Dick adaptation is Blade Runner. It’s one of those adaptations that should never have worked. Ridley Scott’s Deckard has little to do with the book’s Deckard, only the skeletal outline of the plot is similar, and many of the assumptions and theories of the book are actually countered by the film. In the book the replicants lack any empathy towards other creatures and are never given a chance at redemption, while in the film the replicants are built without empathy but are given a chance to obtain it. What makes the film work is because it still understands the themes of the book even if it does not agree with them. That and because it’s the most visually unique film…well, perhaps ever.

A Scanner Darkly is the opposite of Blade Runner in that it is the most faithful Philip K. Dick adaptation…well, perhaps ever. This isn’t a film that takes Philip K. Dick’s ideas and dresses them up in some inane thriller, this is a Philip K. Dick book on the screen. The plot is largely absent from much of the film. Instead it focuses on the drugged out characters, and anyone who’s hung out around the perpetually stoned will recognize one or two of these stoner archetypes. Of particular note is Robert Downey Jr. doing another great character since his rehab. What the hell Downey, I thought all creativity was supposed to be used up by the time you go through rehab? It’s only until the second half of the movie that the plot twists start a-flyin’. If, like me, you’ve already read the book, then you’ll want to go for the great character interaction, already on the page, brought to life by the aforementioned Downey, Woody Harrelson, and Rory Cochrane (who I was unfamiliar with, but does a great job at portraying a paranoid, nerve frayed druggie). You’ll also want to check out the great use of rotoscoping. I was surprised to learn a few months back that this was the same technique used in those 1940 Superman cartoon shorts. I guess everything old is new.

There are a few tweaks to the story line that make it slightly more relevant in today’s world, but I was surprised how little needed to be changed for Dick’s social commentary to shine through. It’s interesting how time tested political maneuverings remain relevent. The use of an enemy to annex more power is the oldest trick in the book, but people keep on falling for it. Again and again governments will sing the refrain of protection to eat away at the Bill of Rights. In Dick’s time it was protection against communism and the drug war. The drug war has been a good standby for years but it has recently been eclipsed by the war on terror. The drug war, terrorism, communism, Eurasia, Eastasia – governments will always create an enemy to make a power grab. Scanner paints a picture of a world where surveillance is so prevalent that the almost humorous situation of spying on yourself arises. Of course, one can ask the question about how many liberties we can give up to save “America” until we have actually destroyed the great experimental ideal of America our founding fathers hoped to create.

As with most Philip K. Dick, the shifting nature of reality is examined, but in Scanner this reality isn’t necessarily metaphysical as it is perceived (potential spoiler alert). Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) volunteers to go undercover in order to find the higher up drug dealers, but is unaware that his superiors have a second undercover operation in mind. While he did volunteer in a broad sense for undercover anti-drug work, and that is still what his superiors are using him for (albeit not in a way he expected), he did not volunteer specifically for the dehumanizing fate that would accompany this second undercover drug scheme. I am reminded of the soldiers sent to Iraq under the assumption that Saddam was related to 9/11 (as asserted by the President on several occasions and, interesting enough, repeated by commanders at Abu Graib prisons). However, once they arrived in Iraq the reasons for going there were switched around. There were no WMDs or 9/11 connection, and instead they realize they are there for two major reasons: oil and a naïve neo-conservative view of the world that believed toppling Saddam would make democracy flourish and solve the Middle East’s problems. (We can all see how that is turning out). Scanner portrays how easy it is for politicians to switch reality on the public once they have what they want.

Perhaps the next question is whether or not people even recognize that they were sold one war and given another. We live in a world where we're subject to a constant barrage of images everyday, and it means little to our mindset to go from a news anchor’s somber description of an Iraq massacre to a commercial about Depends. If our minds can make these extreme leaps, perhaps it’s not too difficult to think that what we believe one minute does not have to coincide with what we believe the next minute. To push the Iraq analogy, many people have no problem that they shouted WMDs at the top of their lungs before the war and democratization after the war without skipping a beat, and even claiming that democratization was their reason we should invade Iraq to begin with. It’s only a matter of time before people start claiming that the only way to protect civil liberties is to destroy them.

As you can see, A Scanner Darkly is one of those films you go and see late at night with a few of your friends, and then go get some coffee afterwards to talk about it. I guarantee you the conversation will take you places you didn't think it would. It is one of the great conversation films of...well, perhaps ever.

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