As news of the extent of covert government surveillance grows (thanks
in no small part to the Patriot Act), the storyline of Philip K. Dick's 1977 novel
A SCANNER DARKLY seems more prescient than ever. So one might expect a
film drawn from this book to be exciting and engrossing. Linklater has opted
to employ rotoscoping -- the same sort of animation techniques he used (in
collaboration with Bob Sabinson) on the mind-bending
WAKING LIFE. That film
was about dreams and the idea of animating what had originally been shot on
digital video was groundbreaking and inspiring. Here, it serves to distance the
audience from the action. I understand one of the major reasons that Linklater
opted to use this format -- the shape shifting "scramble suits" that are
employed by undercover cops to maintain their identity. It's doubtful that
any special effects could have captured this idea without resorting to some
form of animation. In
A SCANNER DARKLY, the suits are rendered as a
changing melange of characteristics and are probably the high point of animation.
Also, undoubtedly, the use of rotoscoping allowed some of the more fantastical
aspects of the story to be depicted (such as the opening scene where a
character (played by Rory Cochrane) is convinced bugs are attacking him).

The complex story involves an illegal drug called Substance D that
seemingly everyone is hooked on. Undercover cop Fred (Keanu Reeves) has
been investigating his roommates Barris (Robert Downey Jr.) and Luckman
(Woody Harrelson) while also keeping tabs on dealer Donna (Winona Ryder).
In a twist of fate, Fred is assigned to monitor the movements of Bob Arctor,
which happens to be the identity Fred is using. Or is he really Bob Arctor and
Fred is his alter ego? I'm not sure because I got lost in the convoluted story.

As a screenwriter, Linklater is noted for having characters express
themselves verbally. That may work in small films like
but in a complex tale tied to an identity crisis, it is not the best of things.
Dick, who struggled with drug addiction, wrote the novel as a cautionary tale
but one rooted in reality. By taking the real out of the story and shifting it
to a cartoon world, Linklater does the material an injustice. He also somehow
fails to draw any parallels to contemporary events which could have made
the film seem even more
au courant.

Reeves delivers an okay turn as Fred/Bob. Casting Downey and
Harrelson as verbose addicts is practically a no-brainer; each man has
a reputation that informs on their work. Cochrane does fine as the
most paranoid member of the group. Rider is passable as the dealer suffering
with aphenphosmphobia (fear of being touched).

A SCANNER DARKLY is a trippy movie that doesn't make it easy for
the audience to follow. The story is complex and confusing and the
animation keeps the viewer from entering the tale emotionally or intellectually.
While it may seem that the best way to capture Dick's paranoid world was
via animation, it is also the film's weakness.

              Rating:             C -
              MPAA Rating:     R for drug and sexual content, language
                                         and a brief violent image
              Running time:    100 mins.

                    Viewed at the Broadway Screening Room
A Scanner Darkly
©  2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.