Reviewed by

Bud Carlson

Richard Linklater is a big-time director of independent films (though he has lost some street-cred recently with “School of Rock” (too big-box-office) and “Bad News Bears” (a lousy remake) in recent years).  Anyhow, Linklater has returned back to his roots with “A Scanner Darkly” a futuristic sci-fi story brought to life with a filmmaking technique called rotoscoping.   You may not know the term, but you will recognize the result of rotoscoping when you see it. It’s the technique of using animation to trace over the images (frame by frame) of a real live-action film. The result is a “real-but-animated” or “quasi-animated” look. (You may remember from the 1980’s, the music video for A-Ha’s “Take on Me”, which used rotoscoping extensively.)  “A Scanner Darkly” is not Linklater’s first foray into rotoscoping, as his 2001 feature film “Waking Life” used it extensively, to give the movie a feeling of surreal dreaminess. But in “A Scanner Darkly,” the technique was used apparently just for the sake of doing it, as it didn’t really add much more than a curiosity to the film; without the quasi-animation, there would be almost nothing noteworthy at all about this movie. Nothing at all.

Based on the novel by Philip K Dick (whose works have also inspired Minority Report, Total Recall, Imposter, and Paycheck), “Scanner” is set a few years in the future, in a heavily monitored society in which 20 percent of the citizens are addicted to Substance D, a new, illegal, and very-addictive drug. An organization called New Path is providing rehab for recovering Substance D addicts, but their methods are mysterious and their operations are secretive. 

Officer Fred (Keanu Reeves) is a cop working deep undercover to expose a drug ring – so deep even his co-workers don’t know his true identity. Fred wears a costume called a scramble suit, which obscures the physical traits and the voice of whoever is wearing it. He shares a house with Jim and Ernie (played by Robert Downey Jr. and Woody Harrelson). One of them fingers a man named Robert Arctor as a drug dealer, unaware (as are the cops) that Robert Arctor is actually Officer Fred.  Soon, Fred is being instructed to plant bugs in Arctor’s (meaning his own) house, and to secretly monitor all activities in the home, all in the interest of catching drug dealers and addicts in the act. And you can imagine what this assignment might do to the already schizophrenic Fred, who has been taking Substance D himself to help him infiltrate the drug ring.

That’s a really cool premise for a story, I think. It’s a really interesting and different set-up for a movie. But the movie doesn’t give it the respect or attention that it deserves. Instead, it’s used as a stepping-stone to a larger political statement on the government’s abuse of power (which is a common thread in most all of Dick’s stories). The problem with that is that, in spite of all of it’s cool visual elements, the movie turns out to be a mundane and unremarkable one, not particularly surprising or inventive. What I’m saying is, the movie is not nearly as cool as it looks, and without the rotoscoping, the movie would be entirely undistinguished and only mildly entertaining.

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