Scanner Darkly, A (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

If ever there was a movie more destined to become a cult phenomenon, I don't know if I can name it. Combine the name of the novel's author with the subject matter and the stylistic choices made by director Richard Linklater in bringing it to the screen, and it's a safe bet that A Scanner Darkly has no mainstream appeal. Unlike Ridley Scott (Blade Runner), Steven Spielberg (Minority Report), and Paul Verhoeven (Total Recall), Linklater has chosen not to massage the story to make it more accessible. Not only has he remained largely faithful to the source material, but he has distanced himself from the majority of movie-goers by employing rotoscoping, transforming live action performances into animated ones by hand-tracing each frame of film.

Dark describes both content and tone, as the main character spends the majority of the film in a drug-induced, paranoid haze. We see through his eyes, so in theory the surreality of rotoscoping makes sense. Linklater does everything in his power to draw us into this world and strand us there, struggling to cope with the twisted reality of Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves), an undercover cop whose mind is being "eaten" by Substance D, a drug so prevalent that nearly everyone is taking it. All the people in Arctor's life are under surveillance, including his two house-mates, Barris (Robert Downey Jr.) and Luckman (Woody Harrelson), and his drug dealer girlfriend, Donna (Winona Ryder) - although it's not clear why. The answer to that question is one of the things A Scanner Darkly takes its time to explain.

This is the second time Linklater has used rotoscoping. Its appearance in Waking Life was more primitive, but also more effective. Waking Life didn't have much of a plot - it was essentially a bunch of existential conversations strung together to comprise the cinematic equivalent of stream-of-consciousness writing. A Scanner Darkly, on the other hand, is plot-centric. The need to pay rapt attention to how the story is progressing is impeded by the animation. We end up watching it too carefully - noting flaws and how certain things look - and possibly losing track of the narrative. What works for a series of philosophical musings isn't necessarily the best means of presenting a detective story.

It's difficult to gauge performances in a movie like this, but Keanu Reeves does a credible job. (Is it me or has he shown legitimate growth as an actor in recent years?) Woody Harrelson and Robert Downey Jr. get their share of laughs in roles that require them to be half-drugged most of the time. Winona Ryder, a rare screen presence since her shoplifting experience, offers the most compelling portrayal, although that's partially because Donna is A Scanner Darkly's most interesting character. If this was film noir, she would be the femme fatale.

Animation allows Linklater to do cheaply what would be more costly in a live-action film. The opening sequence, for example, features Rory Cochrane having an episode with an aphid infection. Are they real or the result of a drug-induced psychosis? Either way, the scene is creepy. Likewise, the "scramble suit" worn by Bob (a suit that makes Bob's appearance an amorphous, continually shifting mix-and-match of thousands of male and female features) is easily rendered. One can also question whether Winona Ryder really bared her breasts or whether they are the product of an animator's imagination. (She didn't.)

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of A Scanner Darkly is its inability to draw in the viewer. The film is not involving on an emotional level and its message, which may have been fresher when Dick published the novel in 1977, traverses a well-trodden pathway. What's new about a culture benumbed by drugs, a government that engages in covert surveillance of its citizens, and cops that employ the phrase "by any means necessary"? In the final analysis, A Scanner Darkly feels like an experimental film - an effort by the director to stretch the stylistic envelope at the expense of plot and character. A Scanner Darkly is always interesting, but it's not always involving, and it's even less often entertaining. See what I mean: a cult film.

Scanner Darkly, A (United States, 2006)

Run Time: 1:40
U.S. Release Date: 2006-07-14
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Nudity, Sexual Situations, Violence, Drugs)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1