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Overall Rating

Awesome: 29.03%
Worth A Look: 20.97%
Pretty Bad: 1.61%
Total Crap: 4.84%

6 reviews, 26 user ratings

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Scanner Darkly, A
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by Rob Gonsalves

"Two great tastes that don't taste great together."
3 stars

The drug-induced paranoia of Philip K. Dick and the easygoing good nature of Richard Linklater make an unstable mix. "A Scanner Darkly," which Linklater directed from Dick's 1977 cult novel, ultimately plays to too few of Linklater's strengths; it's garrulous and digressive, but the mood of bitter noir paranoia smothers our enjoyment like a hot wet blanket.

Linklater may have admired the novel -- I do, too -- but that doesn't necessarily make him the ideal director for this material. Neither does the convenient fact that he has a high-tech rotoscoping animation facility (left over from his 2001 film Waking Life) at his disposal. The animation tweaks reality just a notch, supplying a plausible visual launchpad for the film's hallucinatory moments, but that's really all it does. For most of the movie, we're watching painstakingly animated footage of people talking.

Which was fine in Waking Life, Linklater's phantasmagoric sketchpad movie of ideas. In that film, the style changed according to each speaker, illuminating and sometimes even critiquing the verbiage. A Scanner Darkly has the same glum look throughout -- it owes a lot to graphic novels, especially the illustrations Julian Allen did for Bruce Wagner's serialized Wild Palms. Some touches, like the constantly shifting "scramble suits" worn by narcotics agents to cloak their identities, are trippy and inspired. But take away the look and you've got a bleak, grubby tale that just isn't suited to Linklater's sensibilities. The actors play their hearts out, particularly Robert Downey Jr. as the loathsome know-it-all Barris. But the material seems to be at a remove from us and from Linklater. There's nothing here he can really hook into, nothing special he brings to it.

Keanu Reeves is actually rather touching as Bob Arctor, a narc who gets addicted to the powerful drug Substance D and, in the ultimate paranoid nightmare, finds himself assigned to spy on himself. As this shambling, confused man, who wants only to make a positive difference but is no longer sure he's making any difference, Reeves weighs in with one of his better soulful-slacker performances. Bob lives and associates with the expected drug casualties and outcasts, including a pugnacious Woody Harrelson and a freaked-out Rory Cochrane. He's also in love with Donna (Winona Ryder), a Substance D dealer he's using in order to make a connection with the next dealer up the ladder. Dick's narrative logic in the book -- faithfully reproduced in the film -- is merciless and fatalistic, a despairing string of catch-22s. Dick was writing from anguishing personal experience -- he and many of his friends took heavy or fatal blows as a result of drugs. Linklater doesn't seem to have that kind of sadness or anger in him. So the film has no charge other than its funkadelic look, and it starts to drag.

Linklater isn't a judgmental director -- that's the strength of his warmer films, like Dazed and Confused, in which no one is really bad. And he allows Robert Downey Jr. to flesh out the double-crossing Barris with an appealing, rabbity intensity. He feels for the main characters, but when it comes time to delineate the corrupt bureaucracy they're up against, Linklater can't come up with anything. The piece's final twist comes off bland, as if Linklater didn't believe in it. He may be happy to have fellow Austinite and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones in his films for cameo riffs, but for Linklater, Jones' line of thinking (like Philip Dick's) is just one of many that make up a complex world. Linklater tries on Dick's paranoia like a scramble suit, but he never owns it, and it doesn't fit him well.

A Scanner Darkly is certainly head and slumped shoulders above the usual summer fare (a weak compliment), and it may lead some viewers to Philip Dick's more fulfilling work -- or to Linklater's. Unlike many films based on Dick's work (Blade Runner is still the best; others include Total Recall, Minority Report, and Paycheck), this is a movie made by a dutiful reader of the novel, a reader careful to include the relevant passages of the source material. As with the ultimately disappointing film version of Fight Club, I appreciated A Scanner Darkly on that level -- Linklater had been faithful, hadn't screwed it up. Towards the end, Bob Arctor ponders, "Does a scanner see clearly or darkly?" Linklater doesn't see this material clearly or darkly enough. I don't know who would, really; Philip Dick -- or, rather, the mischievous yet depressive tone of his work -- is notoriously hard to adapt.

"A Scanner Darkly" comes closer than any other movie has but still doesn't quite get there. Once again, the old drug-addled guru -- twenty-four years dead now -- leaves Hollywood far behind.

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originally posted: 07/16/06 10:37:58
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 South By Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2006 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

2/21/17 morris campbell visionary but very overrated 1 stars
1/10/10 Jeff Wilder Stylistically well-done with some genuine substance 4 stars
11/22/08 Shaun Wallner Thought this was a good film. 3 stars
8/31/08 Scarlet Keanu can act; RDJ steals the film, and thank God he's back 5 stars
5/08/07 hedd Love the book and this was better than expected 4 stars
4/25/07 Dude amazing 5 stars
2/19/07 Mia One word to describe it - bland. Reeves not at his best, & generally poor quality. 1 stars
2/02/07 Indrid Cold Don't see what the point of the rotoscoping is. Most of the plot is pointless too. 3 stars
12/15/06 Donny Martwick Its Awww right. 4 stars
12/09/06 kaz FINALLY in Oz!! Witty,sad & thoughtprovoking.. 5 stars
11/11/06 matt Enjoyable, but difficult to understand 4 stars
10/19/06 Joan Montserrat Very faithful to Dick, a unique movie that makes no cheap concessions and strikes for deep 5 stars
8/21/06 Adam This film was a lot deeper than I suspected. I really enjoyed it. Very true to addiction. 5 stars
8/08/06 gemma depicts overall a druguser comprehension 4 stars
8/06/06 jcjs so fine, mnd blower, go on weed helps too, just splendid right on, wowsa wowsa wowsa 5 stars
7/25/06 Mortis Faithful to PDK, excellent performance by all actors, A must see 5 stars
7/24/06 shane swank more faithful to Dick than others yet not quite there yet. despite flaws its relevant today 4 stars
7/24/06 malcolm interesting for about 20 minutes 2 stars
7/21/06 Agent Sands Much better than Waking Life. Downey and Harrelson are the highlights. 4 stars
7/17/06 Ronald Pottol very glad I saw it 5 stars
7/16/06 ogaga efevberha fantastic and really inspiring 5 stars
7/15/06 zeitgeist FINALLY a good PKD adaptation. Humorous, metaphorical...Brilliant. 5 stars
6/13/06 Kelly Garcia I am a fan of the book. Fantastic adaptation. Smart, funny, timely! 5 stars
6/11/06 San Lamar wait for dvd 3 stars
5/21/06 John Deere It's the 1978 "Lord of the Rings" all over again. Awesome. 5 stars
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  07-Jul-2006 (R)
  DVD: 19-Dec-2006



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