A Scanner Darkly (15)

Directed by Richard Linklater
Written by Philip K. Dick (novel), Richard Linklater (screenplay)
Screening at FACT and Cineworld from 18th August 2006

Reviewed by Mark Langshaw

Another Philip K. Dick book gets the big screen treatment, joining the like of Blade Runner, Minority Report and Total Recall. A Scanner Darkly is the iconic science fiction writer’s most personal piece, and Richard Linklater’s animated take on this drug-fuelled mindbender is equally bewildering.

Linklater has opted to revisit a technique first used in his 2000 film Waking life. The live action footage is ‘painted’ over with an animation style known as ‘rotoscoping’. From the opening scene it is abundantly clear why the director opted for this method, immediately evoking a sense of paranoia in the viewer that clings for the duration.

The story centres around a group of addicts, hooked on a narcotic called ‘Substance D’. Keanu Reeves once again displays all the charisma of a wooden spoon as undercover detective Bob Arctor, sent in to infiltrate the drugs ring. His fellow addicts include Barris (Robert Downey Jr), Luckman (Woody Harrelson) and Donna (Winona Ryder). Given Downey Jr’s past, it comes as no surprise that he steals the show. Drawing from his own personal experience, he pulls off the revved-up Barris with style and ease, maintaining some good chemistry and banter with his low-life fiends throughout.

The junkies’ ramshackle Orange County residence is constantly being ‘scanned’ by the authorities but it soon transpires that Substance D has left a serious mark on their inside man. Arctor’s addiction has left him with schizophrenia, and as the film progresses he begins to doubt his own identity. Unable to even recognise that it is himself he is viewing in the taped surveillance footage he studies back at headquarters, Arctor’s sense of disorientation is shared by the viewer.

Unfortunately, A Scanner Darkly requires a gruelling effort to keep up with and is not quite rewarding enough to the patient viewer. Woody Harrelson and Robert Downy Jr - who are excellent throughout - merely fade out later on, leaving the focus on Reeves’ hollow portrayal. After the novelty of the rotoscopic aesthetic begins to abate midway, there isn’t enough substance here to carry this movie to the end.

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