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A Scanner Darkly

Trippy Mind Bender to Nowhere

If dialogue-driven, intellectual game playing centered on paranoid, slacker-type drug addicts, and undercover narcs in a (slightly) futuristic world leaves you cold, then Richard Linklater's (Before Sunset, School of Rock, Waking Life), adaptation of Philip K. Dick's 1977 novel, A Scanner Darkly, won’t be for you. To be fair, the film wasn’t meant for most moviegoers, but you probably knew that already.

If, however, you found Linklater's philosophical essay-film, Waking Life or Linklater’s earlier foray into anti-narrative eccentricity, Slacker, to your liking, then A Scanner Darkly might, just might, be what you’re looking for in your next moviegoing experience. Everyone else, though, will find this movie, an unfocused, meandering talkfest, a science fiction/paranoid conspiracy thriller where the "thriller" aspects are nowhere to be found.

Seven years from now, Orange County, California. The United States has become a surveillance society. Civil liberties have eroded or disappeared in response to real and perceived threats, primarily from rampant drug use and crime. The police can track and detail almost every movement without the need for judicial authorization. Anyone and everyone can be tracked down and suspicious activity monitored electronically. Despite the loss in privacy, drug use has become rampant, thanks to a new drug, Substance D(eath). Substance D is a highly addictive psychoactive drug that causes euphoria, hallucinations, and brain damage. In the wake of epidemic drug abuse, the New Path Center for Recovery has stepped in with treatment programs for addicts. Meanwhile, the government, local, state, and federal, uses undercover agents to track down and shut down the supply of Substance D.

Officer Fred (Keanu Reeves), an undercover narc, has been assigned to investigate Robert Arctor, a drug dealer. What officer Fred doesn't know is that he's Bob Arctor. In effect, he's narc'ing on himself. Thanks to a "scramble suit", a high-tech suit that constantly changes the user’s outward appearance, no one knows Fred's real identity, including his superiors at the police department. As Arctor, Fred lives in a rundown, one-story house with two unstable drug addicts, Barris (Robert Downey Jr.) and Luckman (Woody Harrelson). Arctor’s “girlfriend”, Donna (Winona Ryder), will party with him, but can’t stand physical contact of any kind. Back at HQ, Fred "scans" Arctor and his cohorts on computer monitors secretly installed in Arctor’s home. Slowly, Fred begins to realize that all is not right with his world.

Unfortunately, A Scanner Darkly has more than its share of storytelling problems. Linklater has no one to blame except himself. He was either too reverential toward the source novel or simply lost himself in Dick’s social and political commentary. Whatever the case, he forgot the basic demands of good storytelling, e.g., dramatic conflict, rising tension, an antagonist, and an active central character who challenges the status quo. Instead, Linklater allows his secondary characters, Barris, Luckman, and Freck, to take over the film for long stretches of time, leaving Arctor with nothing to do except look stoned and respond semi-coherently to remind his friends (and the audience) that he’s in the same room or in the same car.

That’s not to say Barris, Luckman, and Freck aren’t entertaining when they’re onscreen. They are, providing A Scanner Darkly with much-needed black humor and energy, but Linklater’s failure to focus on Arctor’s internal and professional conflict deprives the movie of a meaningful emotional or dramatic payoff. Where Linklater should have used a series of escalating personal and professional crises to take Fred/Arctor to the point of no return, he circles around Fred/Arctor’s deteriorating mental state inconclusively. By that time Fred is forced to confront his dueling personalities, Linklater has little left to add, except a predictable, third-act reveal and an ending that’s as unsatisfying as its optimism is unearned.

But the disappointments don’t end there. The combination of rotoscoping and animated backgrounds, first used in Linklater’s Waking Life, add little that couldn’t have been accomplished through a combination of live-action and CGI. Even where the characters’ subjective hallucinations are given objective expression onscreen, the content of the hallucinations are surprisingly unimaginative.

A Scanner Darkly does have one major plus worth mentioning: Radiohead provided it with an appropriately bleak score. That’s something, right? For some moviegoers, a more-faithful-than-usual adaptation of a Dick novel (rare, given that most of his novels and short stories have been “reimagined” beyond recognition for the big screen), drug-fueled humor, visuals, and music, will be enough. For most moviegoers, however, it won’t.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars