A Scanner Darkly Review
By Joe Lozito
Enhancing the Stoned
The writer Philip K. Dick has inspired Hollywood to both highs ("Blade Runner", "Minority Report"
) and lows ("Paycheck", "Imposter") with his cautionary tales set in very recognizable futures. On paper it would seem that Richard Linklater is a perfect choice for adapting a Philip K. Dick novel. The writer-director tends to traffic in a kind of peripheral, druggie subculture ("Slacker", "Dazed and Confused", "Waking Life") and Mr. Dick is known to have experimented with more than his fair share of substances. Further, the animation technique called rotoscoping that Mr. Linklater has almost single-handedly evolved from music-video-novelty (a-ha's "Take on Me" instantly springs to mind) to a viable storytelling medium would seem a perfect canvas against which to tell one of Mr. Dick's stories. The resulting film, "A Scanner Darkly", is relentlessly interesting to watch if somewhat less than compelling as a film.
Mr. Linklater's "Waking Life", his first attempt at feature-length rotoscoping, used the technique to explore the boundaries between dreams and reality. Similarly, "Scanner" follows of group of drug users whose addiction to something called "Substance D" has started to affect the communication between the left and right hemispheres of their brains, altering their perceptions. In "Scanner", we follow undercover cop Bob Arctor (a surprisingly effective Keanu Reeves) as he attempts to infiltrate a group of small-time dealers in an effort to determine the source of the supply. The undercover cops in "Scanner" wear "scramble suits" which repeatedly project fragments of a million different identities on their surface, making identification of the wearer close to impossible. Between the suit and the left/right brain issue, Bob is a prime candidate for an identity crisis.
While I could understand how the animation technique - which creates almost a floating, liquid image - fits well within the story, I wanted to see Mr. Linklater either go further with it or stop it altogether. There are moments when technique and material perfectly blend as in the aforementioned "scramble suits" and some D.T. sequences that would make Terry Gilliam want to remake "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas". But there are also enough good performances in the film - particularly from Mr. Reeves and Robert Downey Jr. as a borderline psychotic - that I kept wondering if Mr. Linklater might release a version of the film on DVD in live action.
Like "Waking Like" (and really all of Mr. Linklater's films), the script is rife with the kind of circuitous dialogue that made "Dazed" so memorable. Mr. Linklater's patter sneaks up on you; before you know it the characters have had a minutes-long discussion about an eighteen-speed bicycle. Mr. Downey is particularly well-suited for this type of dialogue.
While "Scanner" is probably as close as any film has come to a faithful adaptation of one of Mr. Dick's novels, it makes very few points that haven't been made before, ironically probably by movies that were themselves inspired by Mr. Dick's writing ("Scanner" was written in 1977). As the moniker of "Substance D" almost screams, Mr. Dick is all but saying "insert drug of choice here." "A Scanner Darkly" is about more than the dangers of drug addiction; in the world of the film ("seven years from now") all our actions are recorded and analyzed (there's a wonderful sequence told strictly from the vantage point of security cameras). Surprisingly, since everyone in the film is a user, little is made of the constant surveillance except to say that it makes drug addicts even more paranoid. If nothing else, "Scanner" the film made me want to read "Scanner" the book, just to see what Philip K. Dick himself had to say about all this.