Set in the near future, Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly is basically a po-mo meditation of sorts on how both technologies of surveillance and hallucinogenic drugs have warped our conception of reality, and can probably best be summed up as a meditation on the wisdom that “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.” Unfortunately, while it’s both faithful to the paranoid-android feel of Philip K. Dick’s best work and undeniably unsettling for most of its run, Scanner — a movie I’ve been meaning to see for weeks — never really gets off the ground quite like it should. In short, the film lacks momentum — it feels episodic and choppy, and doesn’t manage to generate or sustain much in the way of narrative drive: Things happen, then more things happen, and then they don’t. (Since the movie is partially about a descent into schizophrenia, some may argue this was the point…but it still means the film stalls out all too often.) In short, I was entertained by Scanner for most of its run, but I also left feeling vaguely unsatisfied by it.
The film, as in the book, follows an undercover cop by the name of Fred (Keanu Reeves), whose true identity remains unknown to all of his colleagues thanks to his mercurial standard-issue “scramble suit.” Early in the film, Fred is assigned to spy on the life of one Bob Arctor, a suspected drug kingpin and trafficker of Substance D, which is a mind-bending and thoroughly addictive substance known to produce vivid hallucinations and, eventually, schizophrenia in its users. The trick is, Fred is not only a slightly-more-than-casual user of this tenacious D, he’s Bob Arctor, and has in effect been ordered to spy on himself…although the more D he takes the less aware he becomes of this ironic fact. (To quote Keanu in another film, “whoa.”)
Regardless, Fred/Arctor then spends much of the rest of the film popping D and hanging around with his girlfriend Donna (Winona Ryder) and his two bizarro roommates, amoral motormouth James Barris and hot-tempered hippie Ernie Luckman (Robert Downey Jr. and Woody Harrelson respectively, both expertly doing variations on drug-addled babble that seems, um, unrehearsed.) At first, this is rather fun, sorta like Dazed and Confused with the aggro ratched up to 11. But, ultimately, we’re left with a few too many intermittently amusing scenes of paranoid-stoner schtick, and they get to be repetitive after awhile (and are too laconic to achieve the madcap mayhem of Terry Gilliam’s more rousing and enjoyable Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.) As a result, when the movie arrives at its big reveals near the end (which will remain scramble-suited here), I thought they seemed out of the blue and somewhat unearned. I didn’t dislike the film, and would even recommend it to a certain type of Dickian sci-fi fan. Still, I thought it was missing a certain something (what the French call I don’t know what) that would’ve made it a truly memorable experience.
As most of y’all know (or can tell from the film stills here), one of A Scanner Darkly‘s main conceits is that it was filmed and then re-animated via interpolated rotoscoping a la Waking Life (or those “Talk to Chuck” Charles Schwab ads.) At times, the decision works wonders in giving Scanner the semblance of a fever dream, particularly whenever the creepy, hypnotic, and bizarrely off-putting scramble-suits are onscreen. Nevertheless, a few aphids and interdimensional visitors notwithstanding, the cartoon flights of fancy you might expect come less often than you’d think.