Through Keanu, Darkly

I saw A Scanner Darkly the other night in a giant, un-airconditioned, run down, smelly theatre in Burlingame, California. It was affected, disaffecting, funny, intriguiing, and depressing. And that was just the theatre. Wait ’til you hear about the movie.

Well I’m an ostensibly technoparanoid guy and my little corner of Wetmachine is an ostensibly technoparanoid site, and A Scanner Darkly is a Philip K. Dick story, right? And PKD is the patron saint of technoparanoaics, right? So, naturally. . . um. . . whatever. Or in other words, ergo. . . kumquats. Hey, are those aphids crawling out of you? What was I saying? I think I was going to say something about the movie, but, I mean, what do we really know about reality, anyway? (Other than that, y’know, giant, smelly run-down theatres smell a lot smellier when the air conditioning isn’t working. (I mean, they do, don’t they? Don’t you agree? When it’s all hot and you think you’re going to suffocate in a nearly empty hall the size of a NASA hangar? (And will you kindly keep those aphids to yourself?))).

Inside: Keanu as Bogart and Plank’s Constant

So at work the next day some guys were chatting across the bullpen. Now, I work at Laszlo Systems, creators of OpenLaszlo, and the guys & gals I work with are ubergeeks. They’re the sharpest software developers I’ve ever worked with, and I’ve been in this biz since 1980. Which is to say, my fellows are part of the prime target audience for cyberpunk movies, which Scanner Darkly kinda is. Not as cyberpunky as The Matrix, mind you, but moreso than “Speed”, with Sandra Bullock. So they want my verdict on the film.

“Well it’s got Keanu in the lede role,” I starts. . .

“Ugh,” says Scott.

“Keanu!” says Adam, joining the conversation from about ten yards away.

“I can’t believe you’re such a Keanu fan,” Scott says. “You’re serious about that.”

“I am”

“And you studied film at Harvard.”

“I did.” (Adam is one of those annoying universally brilliant people. He’s a world class software designer who studied film in college. Taught himself programming on the side. . .) “I think Keanu is the best actor of his generation.”

I observe that since Keanu stars in every cyberpunk movie ever made, maybe it’s impossible to make one that does not star him. In other words, maybe it’s not just an unwritten law of Hollywood that you cannot make a cyberpunk movie that does not star Keanu Reeves. Maybe it’s a fundamental property of the universe, like the speed of light or Plank’s Constant or something. Adam and Scott are too busy arguing about Keanu-as-actor to take any notice of my new (and I think quite insightful) hypothesis about this fundamental property of the universe.

“He was perfect as Neo”, Adam says.

“Perfect as a two-by-four” Scott says. Scott is busy writing code as we’re having this conversation. He’s typing a mile a minute.

Adam meanwhile stands up and puts his hand out directly in front of him, like Neo stopping the bullets. Adam is wearing Neo-style shades, natch.

I say something about Keanu being like Bogart. Bogart acted like Bogart, not like a real person in the world. Yet he often was perfect in his roles. Meanwhile Adam and Scott have changed gears and are having a mini code review by proxy. Scott is verbally serializing some data structures across the room; Adam is catching and responding.

Anyway, I liked Scanner Darkly a lot, but cannot give it an unqualified recommendation. First of all, it’s about drug addiction. It’s also about technoparanoia and all that other patented Philip K. Dick stuff about the nature of reality and so forth, but fundamentally it’s about drug addiction, and drug addiction in this movie is presented honestly. It can be interesting to watch people’s minds and lives fall apart; it can have its funny moments too. But it’s really, really depressing.

Two other comments: I think the rotogravure animation was a mistake. Not a bad mistake, but a mistake. And also, Robert Downey’s performance was brilliant. I’m going to see the movie again just to watch it. Some snotty reviewers — several that I’ve read, actually — have tsk-tsk’d about how over-the-top his scenery-chewing performance is. (Note to self: what are these same critics saying about Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow?). I wonder if these people have never been around anybody who’s really smart and also stoned and tripping? Well, anyway, I loved Downey in this movie. And I loved Keanu too. And Winona Ryder too. Well, everybody was good in this flick.

The theatre added to the verisimilitude, but you can get nearly the same effect without it, I expect, so you can skip that part.


  1. This was the same theatre where I went to see “The Last Starfighter” and “The Search for Spock”. It had a different smell back then. As for the heat, “Spare the air” days are the worst. I’m more aligned with the Adam of your story than the Scott. Keanu was a better Johnny Mnemonic than many could have been.

  2. mookie crunchbucket

    he said – verisimilitude

  3. Hrm, I don’t think this is the Redwood City theater where I saw “Bound”. With a dude. But definitely the same vibe.

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