A Scanner Darkly may be the most fascinating boring movie I’ve screened in recent years. The set up for the story is novel: In the not-too-distant future, a superdrug called Substance D has spread to epidemic proportions. A group of So-Cal junkies & dealers, led by Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) begin to suspect a Big Brother-ish sting operation is closing in on them. Living with Arctor in his ratty house are his sort-of-girlfriend, Donna (Winona Ryder), surfer burnout Ernie (Woody Harrelson), and Barris (Robert Downey, Jr.), a geeky, engineer chatterbox full of conspiracy theories.
Visually, the film adopts the technology employed in Linklater’s 2001 film, Waking Life, wherein the actors are filmed and then the film is painted over as animation. This type of filmmaking is an interesting comparison to the motion-capture animation employed in the current Monster House and in 2004’s The Polar Express. Many critics complain about the dead-looking, unexpressive characters in motion-capture animation, a criticism not without merit. The animation here, while not without its awkward moments, is generally more expressive.
The film has the look of a comic book, which is appropriate given that the source material is a short story by Philip K. Dick, whose sci-fi-meets-noir writing style mirrors the graphic novel aesthetic. Dick’s material has received decidedly mixed treatment on the screen (see the 2002 dud Impostor or 1990’s Total Recall, which might best be described as trashy fun) and A Scanner Darkly, unfortunately, is no exception.
Linklater’s script is extremely talky, with too many long scenes of the junkies meditating on life’s minutiae, which grows old fast. At times, it becomes awkwardly funny, not in a laugh-out-loud kind of way, but rather in a were-they-trying-to-be-funny-or-is-this-just-weird kind of way. The film’s pace is lazy, and potential moments of suspense are diffused by the lack of momentum. Also, given the creative freedom this type of animation allows, the visuals are sometimes lackluster. It’s curious that Linklater didn’t stylize the set design more. Coupling that with the extremely static camerawork (it’s almost entirely stationary) gives the film a very flat feel.
In this format, judging the actors is a bit tricky because the animators control some of their expressiveness. Perhaps the best of the bunch is Rory Cochrane as Freck, an outsider to this junkie posse whose brain has been completely fried by drugs. Cochrane, who was so charming as a cheerful, hippie burnout in Linklater’s breakout film, Dazed and Confused, manages to convey his character’s edginess without slipping into caricature. The same cannot be said for Woody “Pass the Hemp” Harrelson, whose poorly defined, overacted character contributes almost nothing to the story. Harrelson’s co-star in the 1994 atrocity Natural Born Killers, Downey, goes in the opposite direction, making his character fussy and overly quirky—the performance has the cumulative effect of an odd James Spader impersonation. Downey and Harrelson are both gifted actors, but here they seem to be trying too hard to make their characters interesting. Ryder isn’t bad, but her “insert-girlfriend-here” character feels formulaic and underdeveloped. Leading the pack is the King of Blankness himself, Keanu Reeves. Reeves takes repeated beatings from critics (myself included) and I think his main problem as an actor is an inherent opaqueness. His face and his whole energy reveal almost nothing of an internal life. He’s not terrible here, but his performance, combined with the writing style, keep the audience at an arm’s length from A Scanner Darkly.
Ultimately, Linklater may have been the wrong writer-director for this material. While outsiders and slackers are his specialty, taut storytelling is not and he lacks the sci-fi-geek intensity that Cameron and Spielberg have brought to similar projects (including Spielberg’s rock-solid Minority Report, also based on Dick’s writing). A Scanner Darkly is a film about junkies that has the feeling of a drug trip: chilled-out, occasionally inspired, but in the end vague and not terribly coherent.
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