A Scanner Darkly

Movie Information

Genre: Science Fiction
Director: Richard Linklater
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Winona Ryder, Woody Harrelson
Rated: R

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

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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6 thoughts on “A Scanner Darkly

  1. Brian

    I don’t think this movie is an anti-drug movie at all (paranoia-fueled, yes). It’s message is against the government punishing people for their own personal problems. I don’t the movie made the point that people shouldn’t be taking drugs. It was making the point that it was the government that was ultimately behind supplying the drugs, and it is the government that is punishing these people for their illness.

  2. Ken Hanke

    Even if that is the case (and no way I’m watching this thing a second time to check that reading out), it would still be a rambling movie about people I’d walk on the other side of the street to avoid.

  3. Brian

    Jeez, I hope you weren’t around San Francisco in the 60’s. You’d have crawled up into the fetal position and started sucking your thumb. Maybe you and my dad can get together and watch the Lawrence Welks show over a couple of rootbeers.

  4. Ken Hanke

    No, Brian, it’s exactly because I was around in more or less that time (though not in San Francisco) and have spent too many nights in dorm rooms and crummy apartments listening to people ramble on interminably about what they thought was profound that I have no use for this pretentious nonsense now. Has nothing to do with being shocked or appalled and has everything to do with being bored out of my mind.

  5. Space Cakes

    Why, I detect a subtle amount of predisposed bias! Kudos for showing your cards before the round was completed.

  6. Ken Hanke

    Anyone who comes to a work by someone whose work he’s seen before comes with an amount of predisposed bias. Welcome to reality.

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