A Scanner Darkly

"What does a scanner see?" a character muses toward the end of "A Scanner Darkly." Whatever the answer is, audiences may find there's less than meets the eye in Richard Linklater's adaptation of Philip K. Dick's novel about government surveillance and fractured identity. Mainstream auds will likely prefer their head-trips less talky and more self-administered.

“What does a scanner see?” a character muses toward the end of “A Scanner Darkly.” Whatever the answer is, audiences may find there’s less than meets the eye in Richard Linklater’s deeply intriguing but almost too-faithful adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s nightmarish 1977 novel about government surveillance, fractured identity and dope-fueled paranoia. Shot in live-action and animated via the same interpolated-rotoscoping techniques applied to the director’s 2001 fantasia “Waking Life” — albeit to markedly different aesthetic effect — pic feels almost self-consciously geared toward cult status. Mainstream viewers will likely prefer their head-trips less talky and more self-administered.

Premiering in Un Certain Regard before its July 7 opening (the complex rotoscoping process delayed the pic from an original September 2005 release), “A Scanner Darkly” has in common with Linklater’s other Cannes entry, “Fast Food Nation,” the feeling of a valiant missed opportunity.

Though it shares some obvious chromosomes with “Waking Life,” “Scanner’s” dystopian tale is light years removed in temperament from the earlier film, whose delirious verbiage and constantly mutating palette radiated a sense of boundless optimism and possibility.

Dick’s cynical universe proves much more hermetic, leaving surprisingly little room for the kinds of surrealist touches and visual fillips one would expect. Plot point by plot point, the film seems more concerned with achieving a lucid retelling of the novel’s events, resulting in an almost disappointingly well-behaved sci-fi noir that’s mildly provocative rather than visionary.

Set in an Orange County suburb in the near future, the pic kicks off with one of its most eye-popping sequences, as seriously messed-up junkie Charles Freck (Rory Cochrane) tries in vain to get rid of the bugs that may or may not be crawling over his body.

Freck isn’t the only one strung out on the mysterious drug known as Substance D (so named for causing “dumbness, despair, desertion and death”). Robert Arctor (Keanu Reeves, plugged into yet another matrix), owner of the Anaheim tract home where hangers-on Freck, Jim Barris (Robert Downey Jr.) and Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson) have taken up residence, works as an undercover narcotics agent — one whose infiltration of the drug world has turned him into an addict.

The secretive nature of Arctor’s profession serves as the catalyst for the fiendishly complex network of relationships, hidden identities and double-crosses that eventually come to the fore. Arctor is romancing drug dealer Donna Hawthorne (Winona Ryder), hoping to learn her supplier’s identity; meanwhile, at work, he’s ordered to run surveillance on his own home, as one of the four (guess who) is suspected of being Donna’s top customer.

Labyrinth of deceit only deepens when Barris, a flippant opportunist played to the hilt by Downey Jr., turns informant against Arctor. Barris is unaware, of course, that he’s feeding this information to none other than a disguised Arctor himself.

As Arctor’s incessant pill-popping and juggling of dual lives rapidly facilitate his psychic breakdown, Linklater’s screenplay unspools at a fleet rhythm that keeps total comprehension just out of reach. To judge by the surprising number of walkouts during the pic’s Cannes press screening, the material may still be too densely convoluted for all but the most attentive.

Though it gets around to addressing all of Dick’s pessimistic ideas concerning the cyclical nature of addiction and the erosion of individual privacy, the pic arguably misses the boat by not linking its themes more explicitly to the political realities of the present, particularly when issues of unlawful surveillance have rarely been more relevant. Technological advances aside, this feels very much like a film that could have been made in 1977.

While it doesn’t manage the unity of form and content that “Waking Life” did, rotoscoping (which took a painstaking 15 months) allows for the dazzling realization of set-pieces that live-action could not accommodate. Among the highlights are a Kafka-esque hallucination and Arctor’s “scramble suit,” an amorphous hologrammed outfit he wears to keep others from recognizing him.

Less successfully, the animation layer has a slightly flattening effect on the actors’ faces, leaching them of some depth. Graham Reynolds’ music is eerily evocative without quickening the pulse.

A Scanner Darkly

  • Production: A Warner Independent Pictures release presented in association with Thousand Words of a Section Eight/Detour Filmproduction/3 Arts Entertainment production. Produced by Palmer West, Jonah Smith, Erwin Stoff, Anne Walker-McBay, Tommy Pallotta. Executive producers, George Clooney, Steven Soderbergh, Jennifer Fox, Ben Cosgrove, John Sloss. Co-producer, Erin Ferguson. Directed, written by Richard Linklater, based on the novel by Philip K. Dick.
  • Crew: Camera (Technicolor), Shane F. Kelly; editor, Sandra Adair; music, Graham Reynolds; music supervisor, Nic Ratner; production designer, Bruce Curtis; set decorator, Joaquin A. Morin; costume designer, Kari Perkins; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), Ethan Andrus; supervising sound editor/sound designer, Tom Hammond; lead animators, Sterling Allen, Evan Cagle, Nick Derington, Christopher Jennings, Lance Myers; visual effects supervisor, Richard Gordoa; associate producer, Sara Greene; assistant director, Vincent Palmo Jr.; casting, Denise Chamian. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard), May 24, 2006. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 100 MIN.
  • Cast: Bob Arctor - Keanu Reeves Jim Barris - Robert Downey Jr. Ernie Luckman - Woody Harrelson Donna Hawthorne - Winona Ryder Charles Freck - Rory Cochrane