A Scanner Darkly

Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
A Scanner Darkly
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

It’s seven years in the future and America is embroiled in a war on drugs, taking over for the war on terror. Undercover cop Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) is ordered to run surveillance on his friends - Jim Barris (Robert Downey Jr.), Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson), Donna Hawthorne (Winona Ryder) and Charles Freck (Rory Cochrane) – but things get weird when he is ordered to spy on himself in “A Scanner Darkly.”

Director Richard Linklater broke experimental ground with his 2001 animated “Waking Life” where he utilized a technique called interpolated rotoscoping – live action film drawn over with advanced animation techniques. That film was sometimes interesting but rather scattershot in its execution. He refines the anime method in “A Scanner Darkly” to, again, interesting effect but with a story that is, to say the least, way out there.

Based on sci-fi legend Philip K. Dick’s personal experiences, “A Scanner Darkly,” is set in a future world where a drug, called Substance D, has reached epidemic proportions. Undercover cop “Fred” hides his identity from his bosses and colleagues by wearing a scatter suit,” a computer-driven cloak that constantly changes the form of its wearer. His street self, Bob Arctor, becomes the subject of Fred’s surveillance and, unbeknownst to his supervisor, Bob/Fred is a heavy user of Substance D. That drug, you see, is so addictive that you are either on it forever or have never taken it. It has some very bad effects on the undercover cop.

I’m not sure I can or should tell you what “A Scanner Darkly” is about. It is the kind of experimental filmmaking best left to the viewer to decide. It is certainly an interesting looking film and it sure is a funky story but, like its author, Philip K. Dick, it is an acquired taste. I, personally, have never been a fan of his works so my viewing of “A Scanner Darkly” is academic rather than that of a PKD proponent.

Linklater’s unique animation technique is entertaining to watch and his cast is certainly appealing across the board. That being said, it is more of a visual experience than one of fascinating story telling. Things like the scatter suit and the rotoscope technique certainly provide that experience but this is the kind of story that left me cold and is for the PKD fans only.

The stars – Reeves, Downey Jr., Harrelson, Ryder and Cochrane – are at one with Linklater and his vision of a future, screwed up world (like this one isn’t screwed up!). But, the animation keeps you at arms length from the characters and I never embraced any of them intellectually or emotionally.

If you’re looking for a psychedelic view of a psychedelic story (or if you are strung out on Substance D) then “A Scanner Darkly” may appeal to you. I felt strung out like its characters, though, and give it a C+.

Laura gives "A Scanner Darkly" a B.
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