A Scanner Darkly


(R) Four Stars

A few words about what A Scanner Darkly isn’t. Although it is based on a story by Philip K. Dick, whose writing inspired such films as Blade Runner, Total Recall and Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly is not a science fiction movie. Aside from the inclusion of a piece of high-tech equipment that does not yet exist, the story could take place today.

It also most certainly is not an action film. A Scanner Darkly is packed with conversations; so packed that a few critics have deemed the film overly talky. Not me, though. I was fascinated by the chatter.

Finally, although Philip K. Dick built the story on his own experiences with drugs, the production is not a dense, unrelentingly somber, cautionary screed. The exchanges between the stoners, which sound remarkably authentic, have a surprising number of funny moments.

So what exactly is A Scanner Darkly? It’s an engrossing tale of self-destructive narcotic users caught in a web of paranoia as the surveillance-heavy government spins out of control. The book may have read like speculative fiction when Dick wrote it back in 1977, but it plays like a slice of life now.

Writer-director Richard Linklater, who explored stoner culture in Slacker, Dazed and Confused and SubUrbia (never understood why that U was capitalized), employs the same visual technique here that he used in his dazzling 2001 film, Waking Life. They call the technique interpolated rotoscoping and it boils down to this: The scenes are filmed just like in any other movie, then traced — with computer-assistance — and painstakingly turned into animation. The end results look great.

The story introduces us to Substance D, a wildly-potent drug that has 20 percent of the population addicted. “You’re either on it or you haven’t tried it,” says James Barris (Robert Downey Jr.), who most definitely is on it. What Barris doesn’t know is that one of his equally-addicted housemates, Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves), is also an undercover cop.

In his police officer persona, he wears a scramble suit, which makes him absolutely unidentifiable (the high-tech outfit is very cool, by the way). Because his job performance has deteriorated, his supervisors have assigned him to desk duty, monitoring scanners hidden throughout the suburban home of a suspected narco-terrorist. What they don’t know is that they have assigned the strung-out officer to watch his own house.

So Arctor spends his off hours with his fellow housemates Barris and Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson), acquaintances like twitchy Charles Freck (Rory Cochrane) and dealer/kinda-sorta girlfriend Donna Hawthorne (Winona Ryder), then he goes to work and watches footage from his life. Clearly, Arctor must find a way to deal with the situation, but the drugs are making it harder and harder to even function, let alone cook up a solid plan.

The film is smartly cast and beautifully acted, with Reeves giving what is probably the best performance of his career. Downey plays Barris as an arch would-be intellectual, while Harrelson takes the surfer dude route with Luckman. Winona Ryder has the most challenging role, as her character is the least defined, but her demons are made clear as the story rolls on.

A Scanner Darkly looks fantastic — the strong black outlines give it the appearance of a graphic novel sprung to life and the shifting visuals are downright trippy. The story captivated me, even if the ending lacked the punch I think it was intended to have.

One last thought about the trippy feel of the film. While I can’t imagine anyone leaving the theater inspired to take heroin or any similar narcotic, I can easily picture people who have used marijuana or hallucinogens like LSD saying, “I sure would like to see that movie stoned.”

I wonder what Philip K. Dick would have thought about that?