The Austin Chronicle

A Scanner Darkly

Rated R, 100 min. Directed by Richard Linklater. Starring Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder, Rory Cochrane.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., July 7, 2006

It’s back to the future for Richard Linklater in his animated film version of Philip K. Dick’s 1977 acclaimed novel, A Scanner Darkly, a near-30-year-old work of prescient science fiction, whose film setting is seven years in the future. In other words, events in the film are happening in the great big now, similar to the way they occurred in the past, will unfold in the future, and always will be as long as there are governments, and citizens, and drugs that fuel the paranoaic fears intrinsic to all sides of the equation. The look of the film expands on the technique of interpolated rotoscoping from live-action video that Linklater and company used to animate his film Waking Life.

Animating the film proves to be a terrific strategy, as it enhances the story’s mood of squinty surveillance and ubiquitous uncertainty. Nothing can be trusted to appear as it is, no one can be trusted to be who he or she claims. The film’s central figure, Bob Arctor (Reeves), is a drug dealer who also takes huge quantities of Substance D – a lethally addictive drug about which it’s said, “You’re either on it or haven’t tried it.” Bob is also one of the manifestations of Fred, the government agent who is assigned to spy on Bob and his friends. Bob is essentially conducting surveillance on himself. To what extent he’s even aware of his deeply divided identity is uncertain. Then there’s also his (amusingly cast) Substance D-using roommates Jim Barris (Downey Jr.) and Ernie Luckman (Harrelson); another longtime user and bug-haunted pal Charles Freck (Cochrane); and Bob’s sometimes girlfriend Donna Hawthorne (Ryder), who is also suspected of dealing.

The plot becomes very dense and confusing as the overall paranoia mounts, and there’s no clarity as to who’s spying on whom or what’s real and what’s drug-induced. In this regard, the movie, like Dick’s book, is one of the best depictions ever offered of the drug-addled state. However, its accuracy doesn’t fully compensate for the viewers’ experience of confusion while watching the film (although a second viewing, which, granted, shouldn’t be necessary, does sharpen comprehension). The constant patter of these characters is amusing and provides lots of flavor (at times, it’s almost as if these chattering creatures have crept in from Linklater’s Slacker rather than this cutting-edge science-fiction work), but as a whole, the film has too little character and/or plot development to sustain narrative interest.

What A Scanner Darkly excels at is mood and tone, and Dick’s mixed-up story about there being no difference between cops and criminals in a world of pervasive surveillance is as cautionary a tale today and tomorrow as it was 30 years ago. Terrifically good performances are turned in by the cast, especially by Downey Jr., who owns the screen in every one of his scenes, and a suitably trippy music score by Austin’s Graham Reynolds also supplements the film’s tone. As the title implies, there’s a certain opacity to A Scanner Darkly, but at times it can be as naked as the lunch on the end of your fork.

For an interview with Richard Linklater, including more on the labor-intensive animation process which was conducted right here in Austin, read "Securing the Substance," July 7.

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