© 2006 Ray Wong
Writer-director Linklater has a unique take on the world. His Waking Life, filmed with live actors and then painstakingly painted over, burst into the Hollywood scene with a funny, fresh, and trippy sense of weirdness. Adapted from Philip K. Dick's novel, A Scanner Darkly is strangely hypnotizing as well.
Freck (Cochrane) is a twitchy drug addict who thinks he has bugs crawling all over him, and he hangs out with his pothead friends including motor-mouthed techno-geek Barris (Downey), perpetual stoner Luckman (Harrelson), Arctor (Reeves) and his girlfriend Donna (Ryder). What he and his friends don't know is that one of them is an undercover agent, and that they're under constant surveillance by the "scanners."
That agent would be Arctor, known as "Fred" to his colleagues. Undercover agents like Arctor/Fred wear protective scramble-suits that disguise them by constantly shifting among thousands of physical identities (of all races, genders and ages). Even the agency doesn't know the true identities of these agents. They suspect that Arctor is the dealer they're looking for, and that Arctor is hooked on a highly addictive, amphetamine-like drug called Substance-D. As his brain functions are gradually destroyed by the drug, Arctor/Fred has a problem focusing on his job, which is to scan the surveillance and send it to his boss, Hank, for analysis. He has trouble distinguishing between his identities and realities. Meanwhile, Arctor's friends start to suspect they're being watched, and they get paranoid. Hilariously paranoid.
The actors all do good work here, even though they're "animated" by a process called rotoscoping. Reeves (The Lake House) is perfect for the role of Arctor: he is laid-back, confused, and he often seems lost in his surroundings. Downey (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) is delightful and slightly irritating as Barris. He has some of the best lines in the movie and his quirky portrayal earns our kudos. Cochrane (Hart's War) turns in a wonderfully neurotic performance as Freck. Harrelson (A Prairie Home Companion) doesn't have much to do but handles his role as loopy Luckman with ease. Ryder (The Darwin Award) has a relatively minor but pivotal role as Donna, and she impresses.
The script by Linklater is confusing at the beginning. I understand the reason behind the confusing crosscutting and episodic storytelling, because the story calls for certain confusion and mystery; but it's still way too confusing, especially when Arctor switches back and forth between being Fred and Arctor, in and out of the agency, or under his scramble-suit. At times, I'd get lost in the plot and the editing early on and it'd take me a while to catch up. But once I do, and once the plot opens up and reveals itself, it becomes increasingly intriguing.
It's a talky film, as are many sci-fi classics. A few scenes stand out because of the dialogue and the realistic depiction of these characters and their relationships with each other. The sci-fi aspect of the film is fantastic, putting us right in that topsy-turvy future world. The clever twist near the end makes perfect sense. The ending, though, seems abrupt and unresolved, but I think it's appropriate for the story.
Linklater has a vision that is perfect for the materials of his choosing. The visual style of rotoscoping is stunning and works extremely well with Philip K. Dick's story. The constant shifting of the animation is trippy, and it brings us into a world that is neither real or fake. The story itself is thought-provoking without being obnoxious about its morals. There's no question that Dick was anti-drugs, the sentiment of which is made clear by the dedication during the end credits. However, the story also calls into question our anti-drug tactics, and the human quandaries that accompany them. While Linklater's vision might not be embraced by mainstream any time soon, I have no question that A Scanner Darkly will become a cult classic in no time.
Stars: Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, Rory Cochrane, Winona Ryder
Director: Richard Linklater
Writers: Richard Linklater (based on novel by Philip K. Dick)
Distributor: Warner Independent
MPAA Rating: R for drug and sexual content, language, brief violent images
Running Time: 100 minutes
Script – 8
Performance – 7
Direction – 8
Animation – 9
Editing – 6
Production – 8
Total – 7.8 out of 10