|A Scanner Darkly (2006)
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder, Woody Harrelson, Robert Downey Jr.
Director: Richard Linklater
To fans of writer/director Richard Linklater: rejoice, the filmmaker has finally returned to his indie roots with the rotoscopic sci-fi adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s best-selling novel, “A Scanner Darkly.” Probably the most autobiographical of Dick’s work – written during his mid-life spell with drug addiction – the film is a lot like the author’s countless other stories about surveillance and freedom rights, but sadly, doesn’t contain the same compelling narrative that we’ve come to expect. Instead, the film plays out like an extended, LSD-induced trip complete with bright colors, wavy figures and off-the-wall characters, which, while initially fun to watch, quickly become grating on the mind.
Based in the very near future, “A Scanner Darkly” centers on Fred (Keanu Reeves), an undercover cop who’s been assigned to supervise the take down of a notorious drug called Substance D; the same drug that has since turned him into an addict. Anonymous to his co-workers via a silver jumpsuit that constantly scrambles and disguises his identity, Fred is ordered to spy on his druggie friends (including Robert Downey Jr. and Woody Harrelson) in an attempt to uncover a possible drug operation that may or may not be run by a man named Bob Arctor. Incidentally, Fred is Bob, and though he’s not in charge of said operation, his friend Jim Barris (Downey Jr.) has framed him as the leader of a drug terrorist group in exchange for police immunity.
There you have it: the so-called “plot” of this film, though it’s questionable as to whether or not that really counts as one. After the setup, there’s not much payoff other than watching Reeves meander around the screen questioning his existence in a futuristic world. Then again, we’ve seen this all too many times before, some better (“The Matrix”), and others much, much worse (“Johnny Mnemonic”). Winona Ryder stops by as Bob’s drug dealing pseudo-girlfriend, Donna, but even she doesn’t lend much to the tale other than a “surprise ending” that, frankly, is about as surprising as a drugged-out loser who hallucinates seven-foot-tall monsters with a thousand eyes. (Note: Not only does this actually happen, but it’s by far one of the stronger scenes in the film.)
In fact, Freck (played by Linklater alum Rory Cochrane) – who displays the worst effects of Substance D among the small group of friends – is about the only enjoyable character in the story. Perhaps it’s because his scenes make the best use of the rotoscoping method (last seen in Linklater’s “Waking Life”) that transforms live action into a sort of animated blend. The technique is quite the visual feast, but it simultaneously dampens the depth of an actor’s performance, and when Keanu Reeves is your star, that’s not a good thing. It also makes both Downey Jr. and Harrelson’s characters seem far too cartoonish; if that’s at all possible. Then again, I can’t imagine even sitting through the film if it hadn’t been for the visual panache that comes with the animated process. What you’re ultimately left with is a trippy, 100-minute feature filled with bizarre characters and even more bizarre philosophies, and though Dick’s stories have served as excellent cinematic source material in the past (“Blade Runner,” “Minority Report”), this is one that would have been better left untouched.
The single-disc release of "A Scanner Darkly" isn'y exactly teeming with bonus material, but it's got enough to prevent diehard fans from going into withdrawl. Along with a full-length audio commentary with writer/director Richard Linklater and star Keanu Reeves, the DVD also features two production featurettes: one on the filming of the movie ("One Summer in Austin"), and another, much better one on the rotoscoping animation process ("The Weight of the Line").