This Richard Linklater film version of science fiction writer Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly uses the same rotoscope technique the director employed for his Wanking … excuse me, Waking Life in 2001. The results this time are better in that there’s at least a story, but the film overall is clearly a product of the same “whoa, dude, that’s like heavy” sensibility — and in a way that’s even more specious here, because it produces a film that’s hypocritical down to its toenails. The overall story is a paranoia-fueled, anti-drug tale; but after expending most of its length trading in stoner comedy, the feeling generated is about on par with watching Cheech and Chong follow up a screening of their Up in Smoke (1978) with a PSA on the evils of marijuana.
This seems to have been lost on many of the movie’s more ardent admirers (a number of whom also don’t seem to see the potential risibility of sentences containing phrases like, “If you like Dick,” in the course of their reviews). That anyone can get to the end of this film with its roll call of Philip K. Dick’s drug victim friends and not question how a movie that trades in a deliberately trippy look, scoring easy laughs via the elliptical conversations of people drugged to a state of near stupefaction, has earned this self-righteous tone is beyond me. (That these conversations differ very little from the kind of supposed profundities offered up in Waking Life says much.)
The premise of the story is reasonably intriguing — and cheekily accomplished by being set “seven years from now,” with “now” being undefined. It centers on Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves), who is both a “Substance D” addict and an undercover policeman. Arctor’s identity is unknown even to the police, thanks to the use of a “scrambler suit” that makes him appear to be a constantly shifting cross-section of hundreds (or thousands) of different people. The police only know him as an operative named Fred, who is involved with a small circle of addicts in a rundown tract house that he may or may not have once inhabited with his wife and children. The problem is that Arctor is so addled by drugs and his double life that he virtually is two different people.
It’s probably a good thing that the police department never seems to have a very specific goal for Fred/Bob, because all that Bob/Fred does is take drugs, engage in absurd, meandering dialogues with his friends and more or less lust after Donna Hawthorne (Winona Ryder), a cocaine addict who dislikes being touched, and who may or may not be a dealer. This probably reads more incomprehensibly than it plays, and, yes, it is going somewhere, but whether or not that somewhere is worth going is another matter.
There are moments when the film scores bull’s-eyes of bitter truth — never more so than when the stock addict’s lie to the question of how much he or she is using (“Not much”) crops up again and again. But so much of the film consists of drugged-out characters prattling inanely (Robert Downey Jr. is very good at this), while the satire is so facile, the surprises so obvious, the paranoia so sophomoric that it’s a lot of work to get at very little substance.
And that is, I think, the crux of what’s wrong with the film — a basic lack of substance that Linklater masks with the smoke and mirrors of his hallucinatory faux animation. Strip away the wavering painting over the images and you’re left with a badly made, indifferently shot, amateurish doodle of a movie about a bunch of people you wouldn’t want to know in real life. Personally, I don’t particularly want to know them in this movie either. Rated R for drug and sexual content, language and a brief violent image.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke