A Scanner Darkly
Films like A Scanner Darkly are difficult to review. Artistically commendable but dramatically stilted, movies of the style over substance category are much more fun to look at than to watch. While viewing the film, I was reminded of The Spirit, Renaissance, and Avatar, movies of high optical ambition that tempted our eyes more than our hearts. Like catching a glimpse of a beautiful woman from a distance, we’re temporarily caught off guard — but after a few days of thinking and breathing do we forget what she looked like in the first place. Visual handsomeness is only a lingering source of interest. It’s emotion that keeps us invested.
Which is why A Scanner Darkly is such an attractive bore. Shot digitally and then animated with the use of interpolated rotoscope, it bears a psychedelic countenance eccentric enough to keep our attention for a brief span that'd be more fitting for a short film. After our phase of adjustment comes to an end, though, our awe turns to ennui when it becomes apparent that A Scanner Darkly doesn’t have much to offer besides its bodacious visage.
The film is adapted from the novel of the same name by Philip K. Dick (The Minority Report, We Can Remember It For You Wholesale), and is the second of Richard Linklater (Before Sunrise, Boyhood) to use the same animation technique, the first being 2001’s well-received Waking Life. Unfamiliar with the latter film but acquainted with many of the individual works of Dick and Linklater, A Scanner Darkly does not so much feel like a failed experiment as it does an experiment that was unnecessary to make into a movie. Its source material is interesting, and its overreaching ideas are stimulating — but not interesting or stimulating enough to balk in the presence of for 100 minutes. Its abstractions more enthralling conceptually than cinematically, it’s a film of mood and style that fails to grab us.
I wanted to like it, as movies so photographically enterprising are rare. But I, most of the time, felt more willing to check my watch than to keep up with the murky plot. The film, set in a near future where 20% of the Earth’s population consists of drug addicts, stars Keanu Reeves as Bob Arctor, an undercover agent tasked with insinuating himself into the drug underworld. Living with James Barris (Robert Downey Jr.) and Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson), a pair of twitching junkies, Bob has already succumbed to the depressive atmosphere around him: he’s hopelessly dependent on Substance D, a highly addictive hallucinogen.
After this introduction commences, A Scanner Darkly goes on to follow Arctor as his mental state gradually implodes, as characters inevitably turn out to not be who they say they are, as hopelessness grows and optimism shrivels. With dialogue so wooden and with scenes lackluster in their ability to provoke, I found myself unable to care much about these characters — whose fault that is, whether it be on Linklater’s part, his cast’s, or mine, is hard to say. But easy to unveil is my verdict that A Scanner Darkly is an empty vase of a movie, ravishing to look at but impossible to feel anything toward.
And that’s a disappointment, considering how much I fancy its ensemble and how much I fancy Linklater, who has made some of the best films of the last twenty years. A Scanner Darkly is a mishap, sure, but at least it’s an emboldened one willing to put its life on the line. If only it didn’t die in the process — then we’d have something. C-