A Scanner Darkly
A Scanner Darkly is the umpteenth adaptation of a work by sci-fi author Philip K. Dick, following movies such as Blade Runner, Total Recall, and Minority Report. While it joins Blade Runner as one of Dick’s only novels to make it to the big screen--the others are based on short stories--it fails to make an effective leap to celluloid. That might have something to do with the fact that writer-director Richard Linklater has so faithfully adapted the source material that Dick’s ideas have had no room to actually adapt to the filmic medium. The result is a staid reproduction of a literary work, bolstered by important ideas, a visionary film process, and memorable performances.
In the near future, undercover narcotics agent Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) has been assigned by his superiors to spy on his group of friends, including Jim Barris (Robert Downey Jr.), Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson), and his quasi-girlfriend and "Substance D" drug dealer Donna Hawthorne (Winona Ryder). Unfortunately, his superiors only know Bob as Fred since, in order to protect their identities, all narcs now wear what are called "scramble suits"--shroudlike suits that flash across their surface up to 1.5 million bodily characteristics in different combinations, thus making it impossible to identify wearers. That means Arctor is now spying on himself, and so begins a mind-boggling struggle to keep track of which reality is real.
To keep the budget down, Linklater turned to a form of animation called rotoscoping that he first used with 2001’s Waking Life, but while the two movies share a similar aesthetic, the more primitive technique pioneered with Life possessed a wobblier, more dreamlike quality that would’ve served Scanner better than the cleaner, comic-book quality for which Linklater has opted. In most instances, you wonder what purpose the animation even serves. Despite its drawbacks, the images prove stunning to observe and, in many ways, motivate some fantastic performances from the actors aboard--especially Downey and Harrelson, who both ham up their eccentricities to express themselves through the animation.
The real credit goes to Reeves, though, who--for the first time in his career--seems not to be trying to act. Maybe the animation blunts his performance, but the fact is the guy’s technique is so transparent that it kills every one of his roles. Here, you actually get a glimpse at whatever it is producers must see when they cast him. He becomes Linklater’s vessel to explore questions of identity, the nature of drug addiction on both sides of the law, and the erosion of individual privacy--all important questions considering the nature of the world today. If the movie works, it’s because Reeves’ sincerity holds it together.