A Scanner Darkly, or, some thoughts on living in an open society

Recently, on Filmspotting, Sam remarked that one of Richard Linklater’s great strengths was his talent for writing and directing dialogue. He was talking about Fast Food Nation, but oddly enough, he might as well have been reviewing Linklater's other 2006 film, A Scanner Darkly.

Why oddly? Because what jumps out at first sight in this film is the visual aspect. Like Waking Life, this was first filmed as a live-action movie, then drawn over digitally. Unlike Waking Life, the style here is consistent, with one overall style, and there is even a semblance of a plot, adapted from the Philip K. Dick book of the same name.

The style works wonderfully within the surreal world of the film, and allows the shape-shifting suits and the character's drugged delusions to come to life. But it's the dialogue that sticks with you, the rhythm and cadence of it, delivered especially well by a twitchy but fascinating Robert Downey Jr. It's crazy dialogue, but it feels uncomfortably familiar, what with all the non-sequiturs and people talking more to themselves than to others. It's funny, too: the scene with the 8/9/18 speed bike made me double over in laughter (but also made me want to yell "MULTIPLY" to the screen).

Unfortunately, there's not a whole lot more to the movie. I wanted to love it, I really did, wanted to put it next to Linklater's Before Sunrise and Before Sunset in my personal pantheon, but unfortunately, the whole is much less than the sum of its parts. Not only does the movie lose its momentum entirely in the last 15/20 minutes, but I'm afraid it's not by far as relevant as Linklater wants it to be.

The world Philip K. Dick created, or at least the world Linklater brought to life, is one under permanent surveillance. There are cameras everywhere, there's a file on everyone, and only one big corporation escapes. In parts, the film itself feels like a surveillance tape.

Some things Linklater gets right. He perfectly illustrates, for example, how boring surveillance must be. But he gets the most important thing wrong: what's scary about today's world is not so much how much we can and are being watched. Instead, it's how much we enable the surveillance ourselves, how much, in fact, we seem to crave it.

It's only 8 years ago that, in 10 things I hate about you, Heath Ledger had to ask the sister of the girl he wanted to seduce for advice. Nowadays, he could just google her, find her MySpace/Facebook/whatever profile, visit her blog, and he'd get a point by point instruction manual: what movies, music and books she liked, her type of guy, her political opinions, maybe even her idea of the perfect date.

In this day, we are all exhibitionists. I more than participate, of course: I might not share many details of my personal life, but all my opinions, tastes, and weaknesses are here for anyone to explore and, possibly, exploit. I put it all up there willingly (also because I've decided being an open person in every aspect of my life is in some respects safer, but that's a story for another day), but was I always fully aware of how much I was sharing? Is everyone every time they post a comment on a blog somewhere, a note on someone's "wall"?

The scary thing is, today, you don't need to be a nameless, faceless, all-powerful government or even corporation to be able to investigate people. Everyone can. And that is much more scary than anything A Scanner Darkly has to offer.

Don't let me discourage you from seeing it though. It's a trip, and as I mentioned, the dialogue is wonderful. As for Keanu, I object to people who say he cannot act. He doesn't have an awful lot of range, true, but within his narrow range he can be quite good, and he is, here. He gets a chance to explore what it means to still be a slacker when you're 40 or thereabouts, and he even manages to imbue this with some poignancy.


"Alright, I'm gonna give you a little feedback since you seem to be proceeding through life like a cat without whiskers perpetually caught behind the refrigerator. Your life and watching you live it is like a gag-reel of ineffective bodily functions. I swear to god that a toddler has a better understanding of the intricacies of chew-swallow-digest-don't kill yourself on your TV dinner! And yet you've managed to turn this near death fuckup of yours into a moral referendum on me!"

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