"What does a scanner see? Into the head? Into the heart?" So goes the description on the back of the box for 'A Scanner Darkly.' The same questions could also be asked of the works of the late author Philip K. Dick. The sci-fi legend, who penned such seminal epics as 'Blade Runner,' 'Total Recall,' 'Minority Report,' 'Paycheck' and 'Screamers,' was obsessed with the merging of the existential, the technological and the human throughout his career. It was a happy marriage, at least in book form -- his novels are classics, and he almost single-handedly created a new subgenre of science fiction, "tech noir." Hard-boiled, drenched in futuristic detail and filled with cynical, world-weary characters, it's a style that remains hugely influential today, even if few outside of its creator have ever seemed to get it right.
'A Scanner Darkly' is classic Dick. The time is just beyond now. The place is suburbia. The story is a darkly twisted, yet humorous tale of people hooked on "Substance D," and a government that cheerfully destroys its citizens -- their rights and their relationships -- in order to "save" them. Robert Downey, Jr., Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder and Rory Cochrane play strung-out friends terrified of each other, and of spies. Keanu Reeves plays one of those spies, who also happens to be one of the friends -- until his two personalities begin to split. And you thought Big Brother was a bitch.
As a film, 'A Scanner Darkly,' is a fascinating, bold experiment, even if it is flawed (which it is). It generated the most attention upon its initial theatrical release for its use of rotoscoping, a visual style which director Richard Linklater ('Slacker,' 'Dazed & Confused') first toyed with in a little-seen gem called 'Waking Life.' First, scenes are filmed with the actors -- sometimes alone, sometimes together -- and then the rest of the visual image is "painted over" digitally. It's like a walking, talking mosaic come to life. It is also a compelling collision of warm, 2-D animation with cold, computer-generated sheen, and in theory a perfect compliment with the work of Dick. However, it tends to overshadow much of 'A Scanner Darkly,' which in its cinematic form, lacks tension and cohesion.
The film itself is bit all over the place -- part sci-fi, part detective story, part slacker comedy, Linklater never seems to settle on the right tone. To be fair, Dick is tough to adapt, not the least of which because his crusty, stylized dialogue often comes off as affected and phony when spoken on-screen (just witness Harrison Ford's faux-Dick, tacked-on narration for the theatrical cut of 'Blade Runner' to see the approach taken to its worst extreme). Perhaps Linklater was not the ideal choice, then, for 'A Scanner Darkly' -- he's a filmmaker who excels with more improvised, character-driven efforts, such as the virtually plotless 'Dazed & Confused' and his excellent bookends 'Before Sunrise' and 'Before Sunset.' But here, with such dense material, he's just not able to balance the thematic complexities of the original story together with the more organic performances of his cast.
'A Scanner Darkly' is stimulating, however, in terms of its politics. I love subversive material like this -- as originally written, Dick's future tale was a thinly-veiled allegory for the Nixon years. Himself a target of the early "war on drugs," Dick slyly incorporated both sides of the issue without coming to any moralistic, simplistic conclusions. Yes, drugs can be "bad" -- but so can the means used to stop users from abusing them. Even in half-baked cinematic form, 'A Scanner Darkly' tackles a subject head-on that few other Hollywood films (outside of perhaps Steven Soderbergh's 'Traffic') have dared to approach with such complexity.
Ultimately, 'A Scanner Darkly' falls somewhere in the middle rung of Dick adaptations. It's no 'Blade Runner,' or even a 'Minority Report,' but at least it's better than dreadful, Hollywood-ized disappointments like 'Paycheck.' And it's worth noting that even 'Blade Runner' was altered so significantly from the source novel that many diehard fans complain that it is almost unrecognizable. Like the works of Hunter S. Thompson and Ayn Rand, perhaps the world of Dick is just too unwieldy to coalesce on film. Are his plots too dense? His themes too oblique? Or his characters simply too unlikable? Whatever the reason, those problems plague 'A Scanner Darkly' as they have other Dick adaptations. Make no mistake: it's a beautiful sight to behold, but sadly it can't cut beneath the technology of Dick to find his heart.
'A Scanner Darkly' first appeared on standard-def DVD last year, and having not seen that disc or the movie during its theatrical run, my first introduction was with this next-gen release. I did do a quick perusal of some online reviews of the standard-def DVD, and was surprised that it didn't get fantastic marks for its visuals. It's particularly shocking because quite frankly this HD DVD looks absolutely stunning. It's bold, colorful, solid as a rock and always eye-popping. I rarely give out five star video ratings, but this is one of those times.
Warner again offers its usual identical 1080p/VC-1 encode for both the HD DVD and the Blu-ray (which are hitting stores simultaneously), and I found it to be a flawless presentation. A direct digital-to-digital transfer, the source is pristine. Blacks and contrast are also perfect -- the image is never too dark nor too light, and whites are spot-on without any blooming. Colors are magnificent, with clean hues -- I spotted none of the noise or other artifacting that apparently marred the standard-def release. The film also has great detail and depth. Yes, it is a "flat" 2-D animation style, but that only makes the three-dimensionality of the image more impressive. This one really pops off the screen, and I loved the sheer act of looking at this movie. Tying with 'Happy Feet,' 'A Scanner Darkly' is the best animated title I've seen yet on high-def.
While the video on this disc is as good as it gets, unfortunately the audio disappoints. In fact, the film's sound design is so subdued, in the spirit of the film I was tempted to drop some acid (or at least do a Jello shot) just to liven things up. Warner has also again opted to not include any high-resolution audio on either of the HD DVD or the Blu-ray releases, instead giving us plain jane Dolby 5.1 tracks encoded at 640kbps only.
That's not to say 'A Scanner Darkly' sounds bad. Tech specs are up to snuff, with wide dynamic range and healthy low bass. Dialogue, though often delivered in a dour, hard-boiled manner (this is serious stuff, after all) is always clear and intelligible. Surround use, however, is bland. The film is lively enough in the first few minutes that I expected more, but that livliness quickly tapers off, leaving the rest of the mix mostly front-heavy. Discrete effects are sparse, with little back channel pans. There is also some bleed to Graham Reynolds' score, as well as the four previously-unreleased rock tunes by Radiohead. Overall, good enough but not exceptional.
Warner carries over to the HD DVD all the same extras that appeared on the standard-def release last year and it's a straightforward but insightful package -- one refreshingly free from marketing hyperbole and, thankfully, endless plot recap.
There are two featurettes included, both culled from the same batch of interviews with cast and crew. Though director Richard Linklater and stars Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder are conspicuously absent, contributing fresh insight are Robert Downey Jr. and Woody Harrelson, plus the film's producer Tommy Pallotta, most of the lead animation team, and author Phillip K. Dick's daughter Isa Dick-Hackett. "One Summer in Austin: Filming A Scanner Darkly" (26 minutes) doesn't pull punches in talking about the film's subject matter, or the is-it-or-isn't-it-about-drugs controversy. "The Weight of the Line: Animation Tales" (20 minutes) is more technical, dissecting the process of the film's exciting animation style. It's fascinating stuff, particularly the sequences focusing on how the artists needed to build upon not just the voice performances of the actors, but their physical mannerisms as well. Both featurettes include a ton of video diary footage, which further elevates them above standard EPK fluff.
In lieu of Linklater's participation in the making-of, he contributes to a screen-specific audio commentary, along with Pallotta, Dick-Hackett and author Jonathan Lethem. I immediately braced myself for a tragic track, as the first few minutes are quite uncomfortable -- no one says much of anything, until Lethem finally blurts out, "Where to begin?" Thankfully, things quickly pick up. Lethem and Dick-Hackett really make the track, offering great insight on the late author's personal struggles, demons and on run-ins with the authorities surrounding drug matters. Unfortunately, Linklater almost feels like a slacker on his own track, with his producer Pallotta coming off as much more lively and informative. The featurettes cover the production itself far more colorfully, so the highlight of this track is definitely the background on Philip K. Dick himself.
The remaining supplement is the film's Theatrical Trailer, which (like all of the video-based extras on the disc) is presented in 480p/MPEG-2 video only. Alas.
'A Scanner Darkly' is a fascinating, often wondrous visual achievement. It's a bit more stuffy and pretentious as a narrative, however, relegating it squarely to the cult gem category. But there's not likely to be any debate over the fact that this HD DVD looks fantastic -- this one is an absolute five-star presentation. There are also some thought-provoking supplements, making this is an easy recommend for fans. All others, if you're so inclined, give 'A Scanner Darkly' a look -- you may not love the film itself, but you certainly won't be able to take your eyes off it.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.