Review: A Scanner Darkly

In the near future, Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) lives in a dilapidated commune-like home with his paranoid friends (Robert Downey, Jr., Woody Harrelson, and Rory Cochrane), and is slowly succumbing to the psychoactive drug "Substance D." He's also Agent Fred, an undercover cop assigned to spy on Bob and his dealer girlfriend Donna (Winona Ryder). As the drug begins to take a toll on his brain, Bob/Fred finds his consciousness melting away as he tries to maintain focus in his investigation, while his doctors and superiors start to recognize that he might be too far gone to complete his mission.

Philip K. Dick's novel, "A Scanner Darkly" (IMDb listing), was an incisive comment on the drug-laden counterculture of the 1960s, exploring the themes of government surveillance and the debilitating effects of stimulants to predict a corroding future world of fear and control.

To best adapt Dick's tale for the big screen, writer/director Richard Linklater has returned to the rotoscoped animation technique he employed for another mind-bender, the 2001 patience-tester "Waking Life." Shooting the actors live on sets, and then painting over the footage to slash the leash of reality and put the story into the scope it needs, Linklater has created the ultimate home for Dick's work, which has often been abused with excessive production demands and glammy stars ("Total Recall," "Minority Report").

The thick-lined representations in "Darkly" throb and mutate around Bob/Fred and his crew of loonies, lending the picture the correct tone of pulsating mistrust. Using a simplistic but effective animation design, "Darkly" looks tremendous, and the multi-colored visual scheme really gives the viewer something interesting to dig into, along with successfully realizing the sophisticated sci-fi ideas of the story (Fred's identity-protecting "scramble suit" is perfectly achieved).

However, whatever societal truth Dick was attempting to reveal with his book isn't carried to its fullest potential by Linklater's direction. Frequently letting the actors go off on wildly hallucinogenic, feverishly suspicious rants, "Darkly" quickly becomes exhausting as the filmmaker gives free reign to the actors to plunge into the minutiae of drug-addled madness. Linklater puts the story on hold for these frantic, tail-chasing sequences, and he uses actors who've been down this road one too many times (Downey Jr. has cornered the market on jittery wackos), thus leaving the impact of the scenes sour and the acting derivative.

With a tale as dense as "Darkly," steering the production away from a concentrated effort to nail the crux of the plot down seems like a waste. By the end of the film, where Bob/Fred's character arc brings him to the very source of his woe and the blinds of trust are finally ripped off, the moment is lost to Linklater's dramatic haziness. "Scanner Darkly" is a vividly interpreted film, and perhaps Dick fans will find more to play with here than the average viewer. But as a rotund demonstration of visual imagination and social insight, the absence of focus just murders the effort.

Filmfodder Grade: C