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Warner Home Video presents
A Scanner Darkly HD-DVD (2006)

"This is a world getting progressively worse. Can we not all agree on that?"
- Barris (Robert Downey Jr.)

Review By: Mark Zimmer   
Published: April 09, 2007

Stars: Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder
Other Stars: Rory Cochrane
Director: Richard Linklater

MPAA Rating: R for drug and sexual content, language and a brief violent moment
Run Time: 01h:40m:40s
Release Date: April 10, 2007
UPC: 012569810310
Genre: sci-fi

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B B+A-A- B+

DVD Review

When a director uses a technique far out of the ordinary, there's a good chance that the technique will end up overwhelming the story. Richard Linklater's adaptation of a 1977 Philip K. Dick novel at first seems to fall into this trap through its use of rotoscoped animation of live actors, but before long its nightmarish themes of paranoia and governmental manipulation make themselves known and keep the picture from being a mere novelty piece.

Keanu Reeves is featured as Fred, an undercover police agent of an Anaheim set "seven years from now." In his identity as drug addict Robert Arctor, Fred is assigned to find the source of the addictive drug Substance D (nicknamed "Death"). His main connection is girlfriend/dealer Donna Hawthorne (Winona Ryder, in her first major role after her legal difficulties). Others hanging out in the group are the rapid-talking and twitchy Barris (Robert Downey Jr.), lunkheaded Luckman (Woody Harrelson) and utterly paranoid and hallucinating Charles Freck (Rory Cochrane). When Barris turns informant, Fred/Arctor finds himself in the peculiar situation of having to observe himself, as he begins to lose his grasp on reality due to the ravages of Substance D.

Consistent with Dick's writings, there's a good deal of political commentary here, from the use of massive resources in pursuit of drug offenders to the fascistic observation of nearly everyone at all times through the use of technology. The titular scanners don't play a huge role in the picture, but these police, who observe all phone calls both through audio and video means, provide a sense of omnipresence that fuels the paranoia of characters such as Fleck. At the same time, mind-control cults flourish with the approval of the government, in the form of the New Path rehabilitation centers that use mysterious techniques to first bend their subjects to their wills and then enslave them even while they're being brought off the drug habit.

Reeves is well cast as the burned-out Fred/Arctor, unsure of himself more and more as the hemispheres of his brain begin to disconnect and war with each other. His sense of individuality vanishing, he slowly devolves into knowing he's supposed to do something but feeling less than sure what exactly that should be. And it's not entirely clear that those giving him those orders are any more certain than he is. Downey is amusing in an annoying role, and Harrelson provides a version of his usual persona as a deadhead. Ryder's portrayal is slippery, as befits the themes of the picture; nearly every scene gives her character a new aspect unseen before, giving Donna, who at first seems a throwaway character, more complexity than just about anyone else in the film. Cochrane's Fleck is played mostly for laughs as he envisions himself covered with swarms of aphids, though he plays the tragic ending with a contrasting blankness.

Although there is a futuristic setting, the technology progression isn't all that pronounced. The main elements are the surveillance, even more efficient than the post-PATRIOT Act snooping, and the device of the "scramble suit," which makes the wearer unidentifiable as he shifts kaleidoscopically between different genders, races, ages and aspects. The scramble suits at first seem like an amusing way to show off the animation (and are probably the part of the picture that benefits most from not being live action), but they eventually become a major plot point of themselves. Interestingly, they're used almost entirely in utterly pedestrian sequences, such as interviews in nondescript offices. The suits also underline the theme of loss of identity nicely. The visuals are interesting, though the slavery of the rotoscoping to the live action often makes one wonder why Linklater bothered. To some extent, it provides a dissociation from the reality that's being presented and works against the presentation. While there are plenty of things to like, Scanner is not quite cohesive enough to get a strong recommendation. Its occasionally heady weirdness may yet make it a midnight movie favorite, though.

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.78:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The HD transfer serves the animation quite well, with the line work all crisp and free of aliasing. There's posterization as part of the design of the visuals, so one can hardly take off points there. Color is vivid and the often slight differentiations are picked up well. There's very little to complain about beyond the occasional bit of extraneous edge enhancement.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: The DD+ 5.1 audio is quite clean with good range. The sound design is often swirling and disorienting, and the transfer delivers that quality faithfully. There's nice presence to the dialogue, with subtleties of timbre picked up reasonably well.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-


Disc Extras

Animated menu
Scene Access with 26 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
2 Documentaries
1 Feature/Episode commentary by writer/director Richard Linklater, Keanu Reeves, Isa Dick Hackett, producer Tommy Pallotta and Dick biographer Jonathan Lethem
Packaging: Elite
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: There are some decent extras, though none are presented in HD. The commentary includes many of the principals as well as one of Dick's daughters and his biographer. This offers the most revealing look at the picture, with observations regarding the writer and his work as well as the thematic material. Also in support are two making-of documentaries. One is devoted to the live action filming (though it also includes excerpts of interviews with Philip K. Dick on French television), and tends to be a bit fluffier. The second is devoted to the process of rotoscoping and turning the live action footage into animation. Finally, there's a trailer that spills too many secrets.

Extras Grade: B+


Final Comments

An interesting take on Dick's novel, with a technique that both works for and against the themes. The movie is certainly well cast, however, and the picture quality is first rate.


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