When Richard Linklater
released Waking Life in 2001, he became the granddaddy of a whole new kind of filmmaking process. The film had been shot and edited like a normal feature, then sent to computer jocks who basically painted over each frame, giving the images a surreal quality of undulating colors that fell somewhere between photography and animation -- an acid-trip philosophy lesson.
Linklater returns to the same technique once again (and for the last time, from what he has said, due to rampant production difficulties) for a much more literal acid trip. Based on the Philip K. Dick novel of the same name, A Scanner Darkly is a feature-length PSA on the evils of drugs and the potentially-as-damaging efforts to ferret them out of society. Article continues below
Theoretically, it is a good combination – Linkater is a gifted writer and director, and Dick’s source material, about a narcotics officer so deep undercover that his current assignment is to keep himself under surveillance in a slightly futuristic Orange County, has plenty of potential for an entertaining film. Unfortunately, the end product falls dramatically short of expectation, and is frankly a hot mess of police procedural, sci-fi dystopia, and the philosophic posturing of the stoner guys who lived in your dorm and never went to class.
In the beginning, Scanner sets up all the right elements that make Dick stories into trippy sci-fi
actioners that really work: A new drug, Substance D, is instantly addictive, inevitably leads to brain damage, and is flooding the market despite the best efforts of law enforcement. The future's policing methods are still reliant on undercover infiltration, but the cover is so deep, not even commanding officers know who their subordinates are; at headquarters, everyone answers to codenames and wears appearance-distorting garments. That is how cop Fred (Keanu Reeves
) is also the Substance D addict and petty pusher Bob Arctor. He’s got a girl, Donna (Winona Ryder
), a cokehead who shuns human contact, and a couple of housemates, one who needs only be described as a beach bum-stoner “dude” type (Woody Harrelson
) and an unhinged, paranoid know-it-all (Robert Downey Jr.
, who is top notch and one of the film’s saving graces). And he’s also, as Fred, got himself under constant watch.
The problem is that, after all this complicated and rich setup, the movie just… stops. It’s rising action that rises, endlessly, to nowhere. It makes way instead for the pretensions and self-indulgent philosophical meanderings of a group of utterly fried and paranoid characters that are neither insightful nor interesting. And when the end comes and something literally must happen, it’s merely a series of twists and double crosses that seem unwarranted, given the lack of suspense up to that point.
It's too bad, too. Under the opening credits is a peppy little scene with a bit-part tweaker being pestered by an infestation of hallucinated (but resilient) aphids crawling all over him. The sequence is simultaneously fun and squicky, and it sets a great dystopic/upbeat tone that is tragically sporadic throughout the rest. But most importantly, it makes fabulous use of the animation, which is able to meld the realistic and recognizable with the fantastical in a way perfectly suited to the sun-drenched sci-fi the story calls for. And Linklater certainly has fun with the animation, using it to toy with reality and flit in and out of the increasingly conflicting halves of the protagonist’s brain. Even when the film falters, it has these flawlessly jumpy visuals that make it look like it is great.
Unfortunately, beyond the aesthetics and the premise, A Scanner Darkly just stagnates. It lingers for far too long in stretches of no action and self-involved philosophizing that makes all the nifty sci-fi set up moot, and all of the talent and potential that went into it got lost somewhere along the way.