A Scanner Darkly - Vague Review

A Scanner Darkly - 2006 (Richard Linklater)

Just a quick note. I intended this to be a short ‘review’ of the movie, but I ended up making references to other works of Philip K. Dick. If you haven’t seen Blade Runner and intend to, there’s a bit of spoiling going on. Not so much with Minority Report, but you could make a case for that as well. Oh, and I guess it spoils a bit of A Scanner Darkly as well, but what do you expect?

There are many films I’ve claimed to have “always wanted to see, but never gotten around to it”. A Scanner Darkly has been on this list for some time now, though I’d assumed it was older than it actually is. I thought this was made sometime in the 90s, prior to Keanu Reeves’ super-stardom following The Matrix, and back when Robert Downey Jr. was at the height of his infamy. Turns out it was released the year after I finished college, so I would have been 18. I guess that gives me a possible 6 years of awareness of the movie, which is a decent amount of time. But I digress. I’ve seen the film now, and I have thoughts to share about it.

A Scanner Darkly is based on the Philip K. Dick novel of the same name, which I have not read. I intend to though, just as I read “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” after watching Blade Runner several times. The film is set in near future America, in a time when a deadly new drug known as “Substance D” has flooded the country, and is effectively degrading the entire society. Police and other law enforcement agencies have failed to stem the flow of Substance D, and a new task-force of undercover agents has been created to investigate the source of the drug, and put an end it’s circulation. Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) is one such agent, assigned to pursue the supply chain through a low-level dealer Donna Hawthorne (Winona Rider) with whom he develops a romantic attachment. Arctor shares a run-down house with two other junkies, James Barris (Robert Downey Jr.) and Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson). They are also visited frequently by Charles Freck (Rory Cochrane), a Substance D addict who has had more severe reactions to the drug than any of his friends, including vivid hallucinations, and intense paranoia.

While the premise for the film is quite simple, it’s the world-building of Philip K. Dick, and the unique visual style that really bring this film to life. As expected of a Philip K. Dick story, the setting for the film goes beyond simply being abstractly futuristic. Philip K. Dick’s stories (at least the ones I’ve seen or read) are often set in a realistic, dystopian future, often created as the result of a distinct catalyst. In Blade Runner it was advent of robotic human replicants. In Minority Report, the identification of pre-cognition in humans. In A Scanner Darkly, it is of course the proliferation of Substance D.

The reaction of law enforcement agencies to these catalysts is also a common theme, with narratives often focusing particular members of these agencies. It’s also interesting to observe how these agents are often undone by the a particular aspect of their own job. Rick Deckard, an agent employed to ‘retire’ rogue replicants begins to question his own humanity by the end of Blade Runner. In Minority Report, John Anderton questions the validity of his very reason for being, and the nature of destiny when he is implicated in a murder by a technology he helped to create. So too in A Scanner Darkly, Bob Arctor begins to lose his grip on reality as he leads two phony and conflicting lives, one as a drug addict, and the other as the agent assigned to investigate his alternate persona. As an addict, Arctor wears the fact of an addict. However as an agent, he wears many and wears none. A technology called a “scramble suit” changes the physical appearance of Arctor multiple times per second, so that no one in the agency knows who each other are. This switching between opposing and artificial identities, coupled with the abuse of Substance D, see’s Arctor slowly lose his sense of what is real, as well as his own identity.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the unique visual style of A Scanner Darkly. The film uses a technique known as interpolated rotor-scoping, which gives the film a hand-drawn, cel-shaded look. Anyone who has played the video game Borderlands would be very familiar with this style. This technique is extremely effective for a number of reasons. Most prominently, it simultaneously decreases the required budget of the film, and increases the director’s opportunities for including scenes which may have otherwise been unbelievable or prohibitively expensive. Two such examples are given very early in the film. The opening scene with Freck experiencing a common side effect of drug abuse - the sensation of bugs crawling over your skin - is arguably made possible due to the this artistic technique. In normal live action, the bugs would need to be inserted with realistic computer graphics, or simply inferred by the audience as Freck scratched at his skin frantically. Instead, the bugs could simply be modelled at a very basic level, and drawn in. The second example is the Scramble Suit, which I have no doubt would have been prohibitively expensive. The suit is integral to the plot of the film, and simply had to be believable for the film to succeed. Using this rotor-scoping technique is an absolutely perfect solution to this problem, but goes beyond simply resolving technical problems. It gives the film a distinct, other-worldy feel, and allows for seamless transitions between reality, and Arctor’s drug-induced hallucinations.

Although the film is fascinating for the reasons I’ve described and more, there does appear to be something missing that would elevate it beyond the four stars I feel obliged to give it, because apparently we all have to stamp a definitive rating on our media. If I were to attempt to put my finger on exactly what it is, I would suggest the following. The film could easily be turned into a cat and mouse film, where both the cat and mouse are the same person. Bob Arctor would need to race against time to uncover the source of Substance D, while keeping two identities secret, and managing the adverse affects of his drug abuse. That story would be a pretty complex narrative, but it would follow a traditional framework, building up the suspense to a thrilling conclusion. In fact, the description I just gave could indeed be used as a description of the film, as everything I said is true. However, often in films, the narrative is not simply about the events that take place in the story, but the perspective from which they take place. This is absolutely true in the case of A Scanner Darkly, as the film is actually telling a powerful story about the harmful effects of substance abuse. In the end, what the film loses in pure entertainment value, it more than makes up for with it’s message. A message made all the more profound once you learn that the story is actually semi-autobiographical, and very close to the author’s heart.

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Another Assignment Left Till The Last Minute

Well, here I am again. I've got an assignment due for a film studies course that I don't even have to do. That's right. I elected to do this damn thing myself, because I wanted to learn more about films. Thankfully I have, but it's still a pain in the ass writing assignments.

This one is an analysis of the differences between classical cinema-going (pre 1975) and contemporary cinema-going, meaning now. I've conducted an interview with my father, who attended movies before 1975, and now I'm in the process of condensing my studies so far, and that interview, into a 1000(+/-10%) word analysis. I've actually completed the introduction (100 words) and the first draft of the first of three sections (about 350-400 words) so I'm not going too badly. Really I just have to get into gear and write a section on film Technology, and film Industry, and I'm done. Of course there'll be a lot of fine tuning, but that will last right up until I get too tired to stay awake, and I'll submit the assignment. I suppose I'll have to set aside about 2 hours of reading, since I have to include about 9 references to study material in there somewhere. There's also maybe an hour of time set aside for doing my formal references, presenting my interview questions in a pretty way, and doing a cover sheet.That can be done at any time though. I could do that at about 9pm while I watch F1 second practice ;)

Really, its 1pm now. If I do a section per hour, for the next two hours, I'll be as good as done at 3pm. From 3pm to 5pm I can casually spruce up the material in the three sections I have. Then I can do some cross-referencing with my study texts, and ensure there are enough quotes. That's like, 6pm to 8pm maybe. 8pm to 9pm I do the referencing and other house-keeping, and I submit the assignment by 10pm. Then I play The Walking Dead, and smile about a weekend full of gaming, Formula 1, and Batmang.

Let's do this.

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Yeah son. Bonsai.

That's right. Bonsai.

I'm not sure what got me in to the idea of caring for bonsai. I've always thought they looked cool, as I'm sure some of you do as well, but figured they were for retirees with too much time and not enough hobbies.

Oddly enough, I think it all started with me watching Hot Fuzz. In the movie Simon Pegg mentions that his beloved Peace Lily helps oxygenate the room and helps him think. I looked around my room and thought "Huh. Apart from the bacteria growing in those half-drunk cans of coke, I'm the only living thing in here." Thus I went to a local nursery and picked up a peace lily. I figured I'd probably end up killing it pretty quickly, but the thing absolutely thrived. Unfortunately when I moved house I took it with me, and a wallaby ate it. I went on with my life plantless for quite a while.

 That is until Flower came out! Flower seemed to rekindle that desire to have living things around me. I suddenly felt sad at the lack of greenery around my room and around my city, so I decided to pop out and buy another peace lily. Unfortunately nowhere I went seemed to have any. It was one one of these trips to a nursery that I discovered a little enclosure with bamboo tables covered in young bonsai. There were also some pretty awesome midi versions of songs by The Beatles playing from a speaker nearby. I did a bit of research of which type of Bonsai would grow indoors and could take a lot of mistreating, and picked up a Banyan Fig. I later discovered it's pretty much the most popular tree to train as a bonsai, for the exact reasons I wanted it. It's been hanging out with me at work for the last year and a half. Hasn't changed much size-wise, but I've managed to reduce the leaf size a fair bit.

 Serissa Foetida. My favorite, because it actually looks like a bonsai.
 Two regular-ass plants I'm trying to train as bonsai. Big one is some type of juniper. Small one is a Cotoneaster.
Since then I've bought two other proper bonsai. I got a Juniperus Squamata which isn't pictured because I think I may have killed it. I didn't pay much attention to it and it went from a lovely green to an awful brown colour. I've since trimmed it all back and I'm hoping through regular watering and less full-on sunshine it'll come back. If not - lesson learned.

A second purchased one is just to the right. It's a Serissa Foetida. Apparently the leaves smell like dead flesh if you crush them, hence the "foetida" part of it's name. It's currently thriving, but it wasn't always so. When I got it, it was going fairly average. Had some foliage, but some of it was a bit yellow, and it was pretty sparse. I took it home and had it in my room next to a window, but its condition worsened. It was then that I finally learned my lesson about trying to keep outdoor plants inside. Just don't do it. I turned it over to my father to handle for a while, and since then it's been going awesome. I reclaimed it today. I'm going to do right by it. Also I'm aware there are weeds in the pot. I kinda like the overgrown look. Purists would probably spit on me.

So yeah. Thems my bonsai. I'm trying to incorporate more things into my life that I can do to relax, because I get the feeling if I can slow myself down at the end of the day by watering some plants, and reading a book as I admire them, I'll live a more peaceful life.

Anyone else in to bonsai? o.O
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An Attempt to Blog Regularly. Or a Flash in the Pan.

Hey all. I spend a lot of time in the Off-Topic section of the forums here, and I see a lot of people posting blogs about themselves - what they've been up to, what they've been playing etc. I've been a fan of Giant Bomb for a while now and I'd kinda like to get a bit more involved with the community, even if that just means posting around the place a bit more, and getting to know some people here. I'd also enjoy writing,so this gives me an excuse to put more words on a screen.  Everyone here seems pretty friendly, so hopefully this goes down well.

A Bit About Me

A picture of me looking much cooler than I actually am.

I have a penchant for starting projects and not finishing them. A prime example would be this blog post. I started it a couple of days ago, and after bashing out a longer "What I've Been Playing" section than I would have liked while I was watching-but-not-really-watching the trainwreck of a movie that is Season of the Witch, I've struggled to make the time to finish it. This always seems to happen. Every time I attempt to get in the habit of writing regularly, whether they be opinion pieces, reviews or just a regular-ass blog like this one, I get sidetracked and don't finish what I start. Basically that just means I'm lazy and I need to make some models to get my diligence up. Ok here's a bit about me.  


My name is Phil, I'm 23 and I live in Tasmania, Australia. I work as an IT support tech for a government research body. It's a pretty good gig. During my off-time I like to play video games, spend time with friends, read whenever I get the urge, write whenever I can push myself to do so, and watch movies. I also play field hockey for a club, but I'm not absolutely loving it at the moment. Oh, I also play a bit of Magic : The Gathering, though that hasn't reached obsession levels yet and probably won't. I live in a rented modern apartment in the city with a couple of old work mates, but I'm considering saving for a deposit on a house - something that should be a lot easier now that I've finished paying off my car loan this week.

Mmm. Curry.
 I was introduced to Giant Bomb maybe around 2-2.5 years ago by close friend and member of the site Damodar. I think I'd been feeling a bit down after the collapse of the 1Up network, and had been missing the good times I'd had listening to the podcasts over there - particularly 1Up Yours and "the kids table". Damodar got me to listen to a Bombcast or two, and since then Giant Bomb has become pretty much the only games site I go to for news, opinions on games, and straight up entertainment. 

Ok that's enough about who I am.


What I've Been Playing

After coming out of a long period of  "non-gaming", I've loaded up on a few titles, mostly for the PC. Here's a list, and a bit about each one from my perspective.

Dragon Age 2

This was probably the game that broke the ice and got me back to playing games. I was a big fan of Origins, though to be honest I didn't actually enjoy it the first time i played it. It was only after coming back to it a while after giving it a try the first time that I really got into it. Strange how that seems to happen to me. It was the same thing with Vagrant Story, and that's one of my favorite games of all time.

I mention this because I'm not enjoying Dragon Age 2 as much as I'd hoped. Most of the characters aren't particularly charismatic, the combat feels fairly shallow, and the story doesn't seem to have the scope that Origins did. That being said, there are a few diamonds to be found in the rough. The character of Varric seems pretty cool, so maybe I'll keep him around as much as I can. The more I get to like the character, the more I'll care about his fate at the hands of his interrogator. More on this game later.

Dead Space 2

Just a couple of quick words on this, since I haven't started it. I played through the first game over the course of a long-weekend. My housemates were all away for the whole time, so I was kicking around a big empty house, As I recall, it was also pretty cold, windy and rainy, and there was a big glass double-door in the lounge that looked out on a "forested expanse". The house wasn't in the wilderness by any means, but the view set a pretty good mood. I don't live in that house anymore (thankfully) but I'm hoping I can recreate some type of creepy atmosphere when I sit down and play this. Maybe I'll hire out a log cabin somewhere and take my PC.

Final Fantasy XIII

I've been a self declared Final Fantasy hater for a while now. It all started with Final Fantasy 9, which I enjoyed, but not as much as a lot of other people it seems. I was a lot younger when I played it, and back then I was prone to disliking things just because everyone else likes them. It's a bad habit I got into, and I'm actively trying to shake it. When FF13 came out I just assumed it was going to be bad without giving it a chance. For some reason a couple of weeks ago the desire to play it just rose up in me, and I snatched it from my housemates game collection.

Turns out I wasn't completely wrong. The game isn't great so far. I'm having a lot of trouble caring about any of the characters. If I don't care about any of them, I can't really care about the story overall, and if I don't care about anything that's happening, why play? I've heard it gets better the further you get in though, so I'm giving it a chance to change my mind.

Mass Effect 2

I've spent most of my time over the last few days playing this. I think I started on Friday night, and I've sunk 20 hours into it so far. Almost everything about the game is brilliant. It's truly impressive how well Bioware have constructed a new Sci-Fi universe. I've said too much in this blog already, and I'm absolutely loving this game so I might do a blog post all of it's own later.

What I've been Watching

Again, already said too much in this post so I'll try to keep it brief. Here's what I've been viewing lately.

Season of the Witch


I mentioned this earlier in the blog, and my opinion on it hasn't changed. Quite an awful movie. I think I spent more time writing, and browsing the web than I did actually watching the movie. It's such a pity Nick Cage couldn't bring a bit more to the table, though I'm not sure there was a lot to work with in the story/script. 

Limitless


This on the other hand was quite a good movie. It had a style to it that I really enjoyed, but it was the narrative script and the delivery thereof by Bradley Cooper that I found most entertaining. I found it a bit odd that his charisma kinda shrouded the fact that the film seems to openly encourage drug use, for those tough enough to deal with the negative side effects, but oh well.

Game of Thrones


Regretfully I haven't read any books in the "A Song of Ice and Fire" series, but what I've seen from the first two episodes of the show has me pretty interested. I'm going to bet on the fact that books are nearly always better than the screen adaptations, and pick up a copy of Game of Thrones at lunch time today. Man, I hate being that guy that goes into a bookstore to pick up a copy of something that has recently been made a movie/TV series. 

What I've Been Doing


I was going to include a little "what I've been doing" section, but this blog is probably long enough already. I'll just have this next time to replace the "A Bit About Me" section.

   
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Crackdown 2 : Demo Impressions

Crackdown 2 feels like a product of the sandbox boom earlier this generation, when all a game needed to do was create a large sprawling world, and give you a few simple tools to wreak havoc. Those days have passed, and gamers should demand more from their games.

 

Although I never had the opportunity to play the original Crackdown, I heard enough about it and saw enough video of the game to get a sense of what it was about, and how it might feel to play the game for myself. With only those impressions in mind I downloaded the new Crackdown 2 demo on Xbox Live, and loading it up, my suspicions regarding the first game were confirmed. The game was exactly what I imagined the first game to be. But this left me wondering how this upcoming release would differentiate itself both from its three year old predecessor, as well as other examples of open-world third-person action/shooters.


The first thing you'll do in the demo is to secure a drop-zone for your allied Agency forces. The area is overrun with enemies of your opposing faction, The Cell. You are tasked with eliminating all forces in the area by any means necessary. Upon completing this small encounter, I already had serious doubts about the game which mostly related to interaction with the environment, and enemies within it.


For the most part gun combat in Crackdown 2 consists of locking on to a target, selecting a specific body-part to fire on, and then firing. Attacking different body parts yields different results, for example damaging the arms of enemies prevents them firing their weapons. That's about it. It's interesting that this method of selecting specific body parts was included, but unless there are specific enemies or boss fights that require to you focus on weak points, it's always going to be more effective to just shoot your opponent repeatedly in the head.


The real issue with the gun combat isn't in what part of the body you're targeting, it's whether you're able to target an enemy at all. Most objects in the environment are targetable including enemies, vehicles and all manner of explosives. This wouldn't be an issue, however once you're locked on to a target there's no ability to cycle through other possible targets. This forces you to line up targets so they're squarely in front of you before locking on, and leaves you to deselect and reselect a target if you accidentally lock on to a truck behind them. The problem isn't quite so prevalent in smaller skirmishes, but the problem only escalates in large scale battles. The fact that Crackdown 2 failed in such a critical aspect of any good shooter, when so many other games in the genre succeed with competent lock-on systems, or snap-to-target aim assist, is an incredible oversight.

 

Fortunately gun combat is not the only option for taking down foes. Melee combat, picking up large objects and throwing them at enemies, and mowing people down with vehicles are all options open to you. The only problem is each of these options are flawed in their own way. The melee combat feels like an afterthought, as it consists of just one button which you press over and over again to "combo" attacks. The animation for the combat feels clunky as well, with animations starting stopping one after another, rather than linking into each other fluidly. Picking up cars and hurling them at enemies is fun at first, but the time it takes to pick it up, line up a target, and chuck it at them means you'll take a lot of damage just trying to pull it off. Driving feels exactly the way it should for a game of this type, and makes short work of large numbers of enemies, however it's not always going to be an option.

 

Graphically, Crackdown 2 is crisp and clean - but perhaps a little too much so. The art style is somewhat similar to the concept art look of Borderlands, but while that style enhanced the look of that particular game, I feel like it detracts from the experience in this case. The end result leaves cars and character models feeling like pop-outs in a child's storybook, rather than components of a cohesive world.

 

The one aspect of Crackdown 2 that has the potential to bring back fans of the original is the return of Orbs. Hundreds of floating orbs are scattered all over Pacific City, and different types of orbs confer different bonuses. Agility Orbs that increase your agility skill are often found in high up locations or on precarious ledges. Driving orbs which race around the streets must be chased down with a vehicle to skill up your driving, and secret orbs that level up all your skills are carefully hidden in out of sight areas.


While fans of the original Crackdown will be excited about collecting each and every one of these orbs, I just couldn't wade through the poor environment design. I had honestly thought we moved past the days of trying to grab on to sides of buildings that look grabbable, only to find they are not. Crackdown 2 encourages climbing with rooftop races, agility orbs and mission objectives all on the tops of the numerous tall buildings in the environment, but makes it all a hassle when there aren't clear paths to take when traversing the sides of buildings.

 

 The sad truth is that Crackdown 2 falls short of standards set by games of the same type that were released over a year ago. Though the game has the potential to entertain for as long as it takes to explore Pacific City and level up some skills, it feels lacking in a gripping reason to keep playing - unless you're hooked on collecting orbs. For me Crackdown 2 feels like a product of the sandbox boom earlier this generation, when all a game needed to do was create a large sprawling world, and give you a few simple tools to wreak havoc. Those days have passed, and gamers should demand more from their games.


Though these impressions were based solely on a demo, it failed to impress enough to warrant a purchase. A demo should be a slice of the game designed to entice a sale. If the demo was as bland as it was, what hope does the full release have?

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