I’m a big fan of Richard Linklater’s movies in general and Waking Life in particular, so I had great expectations for his return to the “interpolated rotoscoping” animation process he put to amazing use in his 2001 dreams-within-dreams flick. Alas “A Scanner Darkly”, while visually arresting and not devoid of enticing ideas, is confusing, repetitive and pretty much a bummer. I’m aware that this is probably intentional: it’s fitting that a story about drug addiction would be all those things. Then again, movies like Trainspotting or Requiem for a Dream managed to follow a semblance of internal logic, to develop characters we care about and to hold our interest throughout.
“A Scanner Darkly” is adapted from a novel by Philip K. Dick, but it bears little resemblance to what we’ve come to associate with Dick on screen: unlike most films inspired by his work (Total Recall, Minority Report, etc.), this one is short on spectacular futuristic action. It still qualifies as sci-fi, being set in the (near) future and featuring a few high-tech gizmos, but this is a more internal, cerebral kind of science-fiction… Which I guess is more faithful to the man’s writings, but it’s also not very cinematic.
Nothing much happens in “A Scanner Darkly”. There are familiar elements that suggest an action thriller, like the undercover cop (Keanu Reeves) who grows uncertain of whether he can trust both the people he’s infiltrated and those who ordered him to do so, but don’t expect any violent confrontations or chases. Whatever happens, it rises out of conversations and leads only to more conversations. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing, as almost every Linklater picture is about folks doing nothing but talk anyway. Yet the talk here is only intermittently interesting. I love everything that involves Robert Downey Jr. and Woody Harrelson’s slacker characters, who spend all their time messing up Reeves’ house, popping Substance D and discussing paranoid fantasies. But whenever we go back to Reeves having dry chats with his superiors and eventually psychiatrists, the movie grows tedious.
The film openly comments on the real-world increase of invasions of privacy by governments and the questionable methods they use, whether they’re waging “wars” on drugs or terror. There’s potential for something very thought-provoking there, but it’s explored only superficially, as Linklater seems more concerned with things like whether Reeves will ever get into the pants of the cokehead played by Winona Ryder. Speaking of which, it’s interesting that the four leads of the movie have been known to have issues with drugs, to various degrees… But again, whatever insight they brought with them, the screenplay, which offers thin characterizations at best, does not match them.
“A Scanner Darkly” is ultimately about the tragedy that is the loss of a mind through excessive drug use, but we’re not adequately prepared to feel that until the last act – too little too late. Prior to the more dramatic later scenes, we’re somewhat pointlessly distracted by the cross-investigations that make up the plot and by the (admittedly hilarious) bits where drugginess is played for laughs. I’m tempted to still recommend it, since I’d rather see an intriguing failure than a generically adequate movie… The question is, what do YOU prefer?