Tuesday, August 21, 2007

2006 in Review: #2


In the world of science fiction, the space epics and technological thrillers might be the moneymakers, but the greatest films in the genre are first and foremost about ideas. The two best (and not coincidentally the two smartest) science fiction films released in 2006 were Children of Men and A Scanner Darkly. Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men, based on a novel by P.D. James, imagines the year 2027, in which no children have been born in nearly two decades. It's a world of despair- to quote "Ruby Tuesday," which we hear several times during the film, "dying all the time / lose your dreams and you will lose your mind." In the middle of the chaos we meet Theo (Clive Owen) who is tasked to transport through the countryside a young prostitute with a secret- she's pregnant. Cuaron, like Kubrick in his later films, plunges the audience into the world of the film without pausing for exposition or character development, and it's a lot to handle on the first viewing. Heck, it's tempting just to groove on the film's visual design the first time around- with its production design combining crumbling cities with cutting edge technology and its cinematography which is both luminous and hardscrabble, this is the supreme technical achievement of last year. But as overwhelming an experience as Children of Men can be, it never once loses the audience, a credit to Owen's rock-solid presence and especially the visionary direction of Cuaron. In the end, Children of Men is a hopeful film, one in which life doesn't merely endure, but prevails.

Richard Linkater's A Scanner Darkly will if nothing else go down as one of the few movies that's done right by author Philip K. Dick, whose futuristic visions have too often translated into simplistic chase thrillers, light on the science. The hero of A Scanner Darkly is an undercover cop (Keanu Reeves) assigned to monitor a group of addicts, but his biggest struggle is against the drugs he's taken, which have caused his true identity to get lost in the shuffle. Linklater and animator Bob Sabiston have created a futuristic world on a shoestring by using the same kind of digital rotoscoping they previously utilized in Waking Life, although to a very different end- if Waking Life wanted to expand your consciousness, A Scanner Darkly is a bad trip gone berserk. But this is hardly a just-say-no drug parable. The film is often very funny, especially during scenes involving our hero and his addict friends, wonderfully played by Robert Downey Jr. and Woody Harrelson, as well as a parallel storyline involving the downward spiral of another friend (Rory Cochrane), culminating in one of the most mind-bending death trips I've ever seen. In addition, Linklater doesn't shy away from Dick's paranoia, in which he wonders after the government's complicity in the so-called War on Drugs. But above all A Scanner Darkly is a film that grieves over the losses caused by drugs. Just before the credits roll, Linklater quotes the end of Dick's book, in which he commemorates those friends who have lost their lives and minds from drug use, and in doing so he invites us to do the same for those in our lives.

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