EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - I don't think Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly (*** out of ****) is a great film, but it's still an intriguing, deeply personal, darkly (heh, darkly) funny and occasionally moving exploration into the effects of drug abuse on the mind and even in society as a whole.
I haven't read the Philip K. Dick sci-fi novel on which this film was based, but I've heard that it is one of Dick's most personal works, conceived in response to his own abuse of drugs and the effects it had on him as well as on his friends. That personal element thankfully survives in Linklater's film adaptation, which friends have told me is pretty faithful to the book. But the feeling behind the production also has a distinctly Linklaterian depth to it. Ever since his 1991 indie breakthrough Slacker, Linklater has always been interested in slacker characters who act in a way that could be seen as rebelling against societal norms, and some of that fascination makes its way into A Scanner Darkly---especially its first hour, which is perhaps the most Linklaterish in its emphasis on verbose dialogue (most of it, I assume, from Dick's novel). Characters like Robert Arctor (Keanu Reeves), Barris (Robert Downey, Jr.), Luckman (Woody Harrelson) and Donna (Winona Ryder) feel like quintessential Gen-X Linklater characters, the difference in this case being that most of them walk through this film in a drug-induced haze, always questioning what they see and what they know. Much of the dialogue in the film's first hour is funny in a black comic way, seething with undertones and forebodings of the tragedy to come.
A Scanner Darkly is a vision of the future as a police state, in which an epidemic of abuse of the drug Substance D has gripped the nation and caused the police to crack down on it and encourage everyone to rat each other out if anyone is suspected of using it. Integral to that vision is Linklater's use of rotoscoping animation---first used by the director in his 2001 film Waking Life---to render what might have seemed like the ordinary present in a hyper-stylized, hallucinatory manner that expresses not only the alienation of the characters within this society, but also puts the film at an ironic distance from the characters, and from us. Its main character is Robert Arctor, a guinea pig who was tapped long ago by the police---who know him as Fred---to root out Substance D pushers, but who has himself become addicted on the stuff. The film follows his decline, as his reality starts crashing down on him and he begins to question who exactly he's working for.
For me, the most powerful passages of A Scanner Darkly relate to the powerful sense of the walls tumbling down on Robert Arctor that fuels its second hour. As Fred is called upon to spy on Robert Arctor---in essence, to spy on himself---the film's plot becomes ever more complicated and Arctor becomes ever more isolated and despairing. When the film ends, you're left with a profound sense of a life wasted---which is, I suppose, as it should be when it turns out that Arctor himself has been used by someone else.
As I've said before, I don't think A Scanner Darkly is a great film. As storytelling, it's rather incoherent. One scene tends to jump into another without much rhyme or reason, and sometimes we enter into a subsequent scene wondering how it relates to the previous one. (Perhaps it's not meant to, after all; perhaps it's meant to contribute to the film's sense of disorientation.) While the look of the film is interesting, it isn't as consistently inventive as the rotoscoping work in Waking Life. (But then Waking Life is a much different type of film: a near-plotless philosophical musing on our existence. In terms of what A Scanner Darkly tries to portray, the animation serves its purpose, and is often intriguing to look at, what with its jelly-like feel to the actors' movements.) And, as a whole, the film perhaps doesn't go far enough in unearthing the emotions underlying the sci-fi drama; the whole thing is emotionally rather remote, and the ending, while moving, is maybe not as devastating as it could have been.
But A Scanner Darkly is still a fascinating and powerful experience all the same. Though it deals with the effects of drug abuse, it's not really meant to be a "message" movie. It not only deals with the drug abusers, but it also implicates the police as users themselves: users of people to meet their own ends. This is one that I'd certainly like to see again, either in the theater or on DVD.