A Scanner Darkly
Directed By: Richard Linklater
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey, Jr., Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder, Rory Cochrane
Studio: Warner Bros
So as not to risk "burying the lead", I will state up front that this release appears to be identical in every way with the 2007 Blu-ray release of this film except that it is missing a "making of" featurette that was previously included on that release as well as the SD DVD and HD DVD versions of the film.
The Film ****
A Scanner Darkly is a cinematic adaptation of Philip K. Dick's novel of the same name. Set in a near future Orange County, California the film focuses on an undercover cop named Bob Arctor (Reeves) who has infiltrated a group of slackers hooked on a highly addictive drug known as "Substance D" with the hope that they will eventually lead him to a bigger player in the drug's production and distribution. While working undercover, Arctor remains unknown even to his colleagues and superiors due to their use of aliases and wearing of identity obscuring "scramble suits" whenever they meet in person. The drugs ingested by Arctor as he hangs out with the paranoid Luckman (Harrelson), ultra-paranoid Barris (Downey), completely burned out Freck (Cochrane), and alternatingly affectionate and stand-offish Donna (Ryder) combined with the inherently stressful work contribute to his mental unraveling. The layers of paranoia snowball when Arctor finds out that Barris has started informing on him to his own superiors who then direct Arctor to investigate himself.
Filmed with the same rotoscoped live action techniques that writer/director Richard Linklater had previously employed for the film Waking Life, A Scanner Darkly lends itself much better to the unusal medium than its predecessor. While some viewers may still find the effect off-putting, the paranoia, disassociation from reality, and general unease inherent to the story are underlined by the animations's way of keeping the real world in sight, but always at arm's length. The animators also do a good job at conveying and enhancing the actor's live action performances withour "Crayola-ing" over the nuances. Robert Downey, Jr., Woody Harrelson, and Rory Cochrane are all physical actors and their methods mesh pretty confortably with the work of the animators. This comes in handy as there are a number of typically chatty Linklater scenes in the film that would die on the vine if the actors were not reasonably "animated". Keanu Reeves is well cast in the lead as a man with a tenuous grasp on reality. When assessing his strengths and shortcomings as an actor, most would agree that he is good at expressing confusion and dread, and that is 85% of what is called for with this character.
Fans of Philip K. Dick will appreciate the film as a rare example of a cinematic adaptation that has enough faith to follow the story to its appropriate conclusion. Most adaptations borrow Dick's ideas, but jettison the almost mathematically necessary final act for something that undermines what came before. Linklater is not shy about making changes, inclusive of updating the setting to a non-specific more modern time and inventing a novel plot twist, but all of the changes are made in a context that works cinematically while demonstrating an understanding of the source novel's structure and themes.
The Video ****
The VC-1 encoded 1080p transfer of the film approximates the film's original aspect ratio by filling the entire 16:9 frame. It is an improvement over its standard definition predecessors, particularly due to the absence of mpeg compression artifacts, but I was mildly disappointed to see a number of instances of aliasing "shimmer" along sharp horizontal lines such as scenes showing the roofline of a house.
The Audio ***½
Sound is courtesy of a 640kbps Dolby Digital 5.1 track. There appears to have been 10 GB of unused space available on the disc, so the lack of a lossless track is pretty puzzling. The high bitrate Dolby Digital track does generally exhibit decent fidelity to the film's relatively subdued theatrical mix. Emphasis is on the front channels for the majority of the film's running time with the rears becoming very active during a handle of key sequences for dramatic effect and then receding back to near-silence
The Extras **½
Video-based extras are presented in mpeg-2 encoded standard definition video and all extras are presented with Dolby Digital 2.0 audio.
First up is an Audio Commentary from Screenwriter/Director Richard Linklater, Actor Keanu Reeves, Producer Tommy Pallotta, Philip K. Dick's Daughter Isa Hackett, and Philip K. Dick Scholar Jonathan Lethem. All participants interact in this informative commentary that splits its time pretty evenly between discussing the film and discussing author Philip K. Dick and the source novel. Due to the number of participants and their easy chemistry, it proves to be a fairly engaging track with few gaps or dull spots, particularly if the listener is a fan of the novelist as well as the film.
The Weight of the Line: Animation Tales (4:3 video 480i - 20:46) is a technical featurette that focuses on the computer rotoscope animation process used for the film. Topics covered include the diverse background of the animators, acting techniques employed with the knowledge that animation would be applied over the performance, advances in the technology and process since the production of Waking Life, discussion of which animation teams worked on sspecific sequences, the technical challenges of visually realizing the "scramble suit", and the tight knit camaraderies of the post-production animation crew. It includes a lot of behind the scenes footage showing work in progress animation, live action reference footage, and excerpts from style guides as well as the expected film clips and talking head interview segments. Interview participants include Pallotta, Cinematographer Shane F. Kelly, Linklater, Lead Animator Sterling Allen, Lead Animator Christopher S, Jennings, Head of Animation Paul Beck, Scramble Suit Lead Animator Nick Deringtom, Head of Animation Jason Archer, Lead Animator Lance Myers, Woody Harrelson ("Luckman"), Rory Cochrane ("Freck"), Robert Downey, Jr. ("Barris"), and Keanu Reeves ("Arctor").
Theatrical Trailer (16:9 video 480p - 2:00) is a pretty good trailer that conveys an accurate perspective on the film's plot and charcaters. Who knew that studio marketing departments still allowed this?
Note: Previous Blu-ray, DVD, and HD DVD releases of this film included an additional feaurette entitled One Summer in Austin: The Story of Filming A Scanner Darkly. That featurette is not included on this release.
The disc is packaged in a standard size BD case with die cut pieces in the plastic to reduce material consumption. There are no inserts. Menus are straightforward, and the disc was authored such that my player's "resume" feature worked.
Richard Linklater's puzzling but entertaining animated adaptation of Philip K. Dick's A Scanner Darkly has arrived for the second time on everyone's favorite high definition disc format with a video transfer that suffers from some mild aliasing flicker in a few places but is otherwise outstanding. Audio is courtesy of a high bitrate Dolby Digital 5.1 track which should have been lossless. Extras carried over from previous DVD, HD DVD, and Blu-ray releases include an interesting group commentary, a documentary on the digital rotoscoping animation techniques used for the film, and a theatrical trailer. A making of featurette available on previous releases of the film is for some reason not carried over to this Blu-ray release.