Austin filmmaker Richard Linklater's adaptation of Philip K. Dick's novel A Scanner Darkly is not a likeable movie. It's the antithesis of the popular inspirational/feel-good genre; not what most people expect from an animated film. The film's trailers have focused primarily on banter between Robert Downey Jr. and Woody Harrelson, and other lighter moments in the film. While A Scanner Darkly does have its comic side, its overall message is bleak and even grim.
The not-so-distant future world of the film is portrayed in extremes. People are continually being monitored by hidden cameras and recording devices. Undercover cops, trying to control the sale and abuse of the illegal and addictive Substance D, wear "scramble suits" to avoid recognition. Nearly all the characters in the film take Substance D pills in varying quantities. Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) is an undercover cop who learns he is becoming dangerously addicted to the pills while assigned to watch a group of potential criminals ... and the addiction is starting to cause serious brain damage. The film explores a drug-obsessed culture in ways that naturally are supposed to provide parallels to our own culture and the manner in which legal and illegal drugs of all kinds fit in.
Arctor is the film's narrator, trying to observe his world from a distance rather than join the action. Reeves' emotionless delivery works effectively in the voice-over narration. I'm not normally a fan of narration (the exception is Sunset Blvd.), but Reeves establishes an almost noir-like detachment. It reminded me of Harrison Ford's narration in the original theatrical cut of Blade Runner (also adapted from a Philip K. Dick novella). Arctor watches his friends' antics from the sidelines, occasionally mediating mildly, but never quite part of the group he's infiltrating. His detachment wavers slightly in his relationship with Donna (Winona Ryder), with whom he is supposed to be involved strictly for surveillance purposes. Their exact relationship is never entirely clear to us, but it's not clear to them, either.
The gradual effects of Arctor's brain damage -- one hemisphere is doing the work normally performed by the other -- are not clearly depicted in the film. It takes too long for us to notice any unusual behavior, and he doesn't suffer to the same degree as Freck (Rory Cochrane), his long-addicted acquaintance who frequently undergoes vivid hallucinations. As a result, it is difficult to view Arctor as a fully dimensional protagonist. His weak characterization is too easily overshadowed by the livelier minor characters, notably Barris, the conspiracy theorist (Downey) and Luckman (Harrelson).
The scenes with Barris, Luckman, and Freck are by far the most entertaining in the film. Downey and Harrelson have a wonderful chemistry together (much more so than Reeves and Ryder). Thanks to this film and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, I now will watch Downey in just about anything. The comic banter threatens to take over the film at times, but the film manages to balance the comic and dramatic elements without abrupt transitions.
The rotoscoped look of the film has a grittier, edgier look than Waking Life, which used the same techniques. Linklater chose animation for A Scanner Darkly primarily for budgetary reasons: the "scramble suit" and other effects would be extremely expensive to create in a live-action film. I can't even imagine how the scramble suit would be effectively portrayed in a live-action film -- certainly not as effectively as it is with this style. However, the rotoscoping also adds a surreal quality to the characters and their surroundings, which enhances the overall drug-culture mood. Most of us have watched live-action films with the lead actors and we are well acquainted with the way they look. In A Scanner Darkly, they look familiar, but also strange ... this isn't a Simpsons episode, with cute animated caricatures, but has a more dynamic, even organic look. Additionally, if you live in Austin, you may find yourself trying to puzzle out the real-life locations in many scenes (which restaurant is that, anyway? Anyone?).
A Scanner Darkly focuses more on conversation and less on action than other adaptations of Philip K. Dick's work, such as Blade Runner and Total Recall. It would be easy to quip that A Scanner Darkly is Linklater's idea of an action film, in which characters talk about action rather than blasting people or blowing things up, but that's not at all accurate. I would speculate that he's being faithful to the source material in structure and in tone. However, I haven't read the novel, so I can't make that claim with assurance. The film doesn't feel overly talky or static, and does generate and maintain suspense and interest. I confess I had trouble lasting through Waking Life and even Slacker to a certain extent, but was alert and absorbed by A Scanner Darkly.
I was impressed overall with A Scanner Darkly: the animation, the storyline, the supporting performances, and the haunting, lovely score from composer Graham Reynolds. In fact, I liked the score so much that I bought tickets to a special screening later this month where Reynolds is performing live. I don't think the movie will appeal to a wide audience, but I could see it becoming a perennial cult classic, right up there with Repo Man.
A Scanner Darkly is thought-provoking rather than entertaining. It's the kind of movie that makes you want to go somewhere with your friends afterwards to discuss it, triggering hours of talk about society, politics, drugs, entertainment, and contemporary filmmaking. See it with a group and make sure the theater is near a good gathering place with late hours.