A Scanner Darkly (2006)

Rating: ****
Review Date: 7/30/06
Producers: George Clooney, Steven Soderberghe
Director: Richard Linklater
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Winona Ryder, Woody Harrelson, Rory Cochrane

A fascinating and utterly joyless adaptation of Philip K. Dick's story about drugs, politics, and paranoia in the near future. Keanu Reeves plays an anonymous undercover narcotics agent whose public identity is known as Bob Arctor. He lives in a house with several junkies, including James Barris (delightfully twitchy Robert Downey Jr.), Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson), and his frigid stoner girlfriend Donna Hawthorne (adorable Winona Ryder). Bob's grip on reality starts to slip with his addiction to a popular drug called Substance D, and he becomes a key suspect in his own investigation. As his confusion and paranoia increases, a much more sinister plot unfolds behind the scenes.

One could be tempted to call this a gimmick film, where the gimmick is its unusual aesthetic. The entire film was rotoscoped with the live actors, and then cel shaded to give it a cartoon look. If nothing else, the look and feel of the film nicely reflects the unreality of the world, and forces a disquieting perspective on the viewer. While the animation looks superb, static objects challenge perception by sliding and shifting within scenes, as if they were two dimensional objects existing in a three dimensional space. In this regard, it often looks like a video game, and can be physically challenging for the human mind to process. I was afraid that the aesthetic would quickly lose its novelty appeal, but I managed to remain actively engaged throughout the entire film. It's extremely dialog heavy, and Robert Downey Jr. spews his gleefully maniacal psycho-babble at a delirious pace. It's not a stretch for Keanu Reeves to play the confused and disenhanted Bob Arctor, which feels like a rehash of his most recent sci-fi roles. Arguably the most delightful performance is Rory Cochrane's ultra paranoid portrayal of Charles Freck, a wide-eyed junkie on the verge of insanity.

Like many of Dick's stories, "A Scanner Darkly" is a mentally challenging exercise in perception. While the writing is very tight, its meaning is very vague, which forces the viewer to come up with their own conclusions. The story is very dark and depressing, and is accompanied by an appropriately dramatic music score. It's also a cautionary tale about drugs, politics, and big business, and the results when all three become one. I don't know how the film measures up to the original story, but I found it thoroughly enjoyable and thought provoking.