Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Drug and Sexual Content, Language and a brief Violent Image
Directed by: Richard Linklater
Written by: Richard Linklater
(based on the novel A SCANNER DARKLY by Philip K. Dick)
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder, Rory Cochrane
I remember seeing the commercials for A SCANNER DARKLY when it was coming out. It looked to be a trippy sci-fi story with an unusual animation style being applied to it. The film was shot live action and then animated over by a group of various artists. The source material is the acclaimed novel of the same name from famed science-fiction author Philip K. Dick. Sadly, A SCANNER DARKLY is a textbook case of style over substance. The visuals are very cool, but the story being told might have benefitted from a real world approach with a more engaging screenplay. There’s a kernel of an awesome, brooding tale lying within the movie, but it’s undercooked.
Set seven years in the future, a super addictive toxic pill known as Substance D has turned 20% of America’s population into addicts. One group of law enforcement is working to win this escalating war on drugs and an undercover officer named Bob Arctor is in the middle of a secret operation. He’s living as a tweaker with a group of Substance D users in order to fry some big fish that they might be linked to a few of his friends. In order to keep his identity a secret, he roams around his office environment in a specialized suit (known as a Scrambler) that keeps his identity a secret to his fellow agents. After some unexpected evidence comes in from one of Bob’s friends (also donning a Scrambler), he finds himself investigating himself. Things get stranger as the side effects of Substance D (which Bob has become hooked on to keep up appearances) is having nasty side effects on his brain. As the film’s tagline states: Everything is not going to be OK.
The ideas behind A SCANNER DARKLY are good ones. I have admittedly never read a novel by Philip K. Dick, but the man seems to have great premises that are most described by fans as hardly ever getting a proper treatment onto film. This piece of unusual animated visual art is a prime example of a concept not reaching its full potential. I did appreciate that the animation on display has a bizarre disorienting effect that puts the viewer into the same unhinged mental state as the junkie characters. The artwork is a neat gimmick, but ultimately the movie should rely on more than just the unique visual process that it went through (taking a production time of over a full year to complete). The script begins with a promising set-up and then wanders without point or purpose for about two-thirds of the run time before concluding on a creative note that echoed a certain 70’s dystopian film (to give a specific title would be a spoiler).
This admittedly cool conclusion did work in the film’s favor, but it also left me completely unsatisfied that nearly everything else in the storyline was tedious and damn near pointless. The movie plays out like a living graphic novel and there were a few instances (involving some weird hallucinations) that couldn’t have been replicated nearly as well in a live-action format. Besides four brief surreal moments, I can’t think of a single reason why A SCANNER DARKLY was executed in this oddball animated style. It’s a talking heads story done in an experimental fashion and the talking heads don’t have nearly enough remarkable or interesting things to say.
As far as the cast goes, Rory Cochrane and Robert Downey Jr. were the two stand-outs. Cochrane’s character ultimately winds up (like so many other plot points in this film) being useless, but I got a solid laugh out of the fate of his storyline. Robert Downey Jr. seems to be having fun as a philosophy-waxing junkie that keeps you on your toes. You never quite know what to expect from his character, especially as the film comes to the conclusion. Everybody else is either underused or just plain bland. Woody Harrelson is another worthless character that provides some cheap comic relief and contributes nothing else. Winona Ryder is hugely underused as Bob’s girlfriend and then there’s the man playing our protagonist: Bob. This would be Keanu Reeves. Reeves has become widely reviled for not having much of an acting range and he’s just as wooden here. It’s not aggravating to watch, but I feel that almost any other notable actor could have gotten real emotional responses out of me in what little journey this character takes.
A SCANNER DARKLY has been a polarizing film since its small release. People either love it or absolutely hate it. I’m stuck in the middle of the road. I enjoyed watching it on a purely visual level, but I’d never subject myself to it again. It’s a beautiful, hollow experience. Pure spectacle around a subject matter that really doesn’t lend itself to spectacle. I enjoyed some aspects about it, but it ultimately suffers from many pointless scenes that play out like filler and an underdeveloped story (which might be attributed to the fault of Philip K. Dick himself). The tagline states that “Everything is not going to be OK.” Sadly that also applies to this movie which is underwhelming to say the least and mediocre to say the most.