There are lots of sci-fi movie and novel fans out there who could explain to me fervently what they like about the book or film version of “A Scanner Darkly.” I admit, I haven’t read the novel, but I have read “Naked Lunch” and that should count for something. It’s possible I don’t own the appropriate 52-sided gaming dice or carry the Ph.D. in stoner philosophy required to call this film anything other than a beautiful bore. “A Scanner Darkly” is visually interesting, but like most art about drugs, it suffers from insincerity and a lack of clearly defined substance.
“A Scanner Darkly” is the most recent and my least favorite film adaptation of a novel or short-story by famous science-fiction author Philip K. Dick. Previous big-screen efforts like “Blade Runner” and “Minority Report” showcase Dick’s unique ability to invent entire worlds in which to fit his remarkably original characters and concepts. Unlike those films, director Richard Linklater’s treatment of “A Scanner Darkly” is a sophomoric exercise at best. Instead of broad themes and a powerful Dick story, “Darkly” is an excruciating and largely pointless examination of paranoia and impairment. Presuming this is an accurate representation of Dick’s story and his own drug experiences, it may prove if nothing else, that even great authors struggle to elevate the subject of drug use beyond self-absorbed drivel.
If there is a bigger target to be found here, “A Scanner Darkly” attempts feebly to explore governmental and corporate participation in the drug culture of the near future through a drug addicted cop named Fred played by Keanu Reeves. Fred is an undercover police officer who is given the responsibility of conducting surveillance on himself and a small group of friends played by Winona Ryder and uncontrollably exaggerated by Rory Cochrane, Woody Harrelson and Robert Downey Jr. Fred very slowly pieces together the duality of his two personalities brought on by the uber-addictive drug du’jour Substance D.
One of my least favorite abuses of art- music, films, and literature- is the overt celebration of drug use masquerading as substantive or important. Get high…enjoy it really, but don’t make movies and music about it and make me sit through two hours of you trying to tell me why your experience in the spirit world is special. Keep that, its yours.
Even if buried deep down in the subtext of a film like “A Scanner Darkly” is a desire to show the dark-side of drug use and culture, when it utilizes all the tricks in the book to appeal to people who like that shit and deliberately tries to make the audience feel like they’re on drugs, it rapidly succeeds in eviscerating its credibility. Heavy metal fathers Black Sabbath have an astonishing amount of lyrics that could be interpreted as almost Christian in nature, warning of the evils and pitfalls of the devil and the world’s dark underbelly, but who gives a crap? Sabbath will always be the ultimate soundtrack to evil because that’s what they’re selling. It would be as ridiculous for Black Sabbath to claim they weren’t capitalizing on a convenient misconception as it would be for Linklater to say “A Scanner Darkly” isn’t a blatant advertisement for stonerdom. Movies that make you feel like this aren’t noble warning signs– they’re trying to get you high.
The epilogue to “Darkly” is a list of fallen comrades Philip K. Dick presumably lost to drug use and/or mental illness, it makes you wonder if Linklater abandoned some of the narrative and soul of Dick’s novel or if “A Scanner Darkly” is just another ad for pharmacy deluding itself that it might make someone pause before diving for the bong.
Without question “Darkly’s” strongest attribute is the rotoscoping animation technique that Linklater also utilized for “Waking Life.” Invented by cartoon artist Max Fleischer for a series called “Out of the Inkwell,” this captivating process of animating on top of live-action has been around since 1914. In “Darkly,” Reeves’ character spends much of the film inside a clever suit that disguises its wearer’s identity by cycling through a million different, constantly changing partial images of random people. Not only is it a brilliant idea, it is represented marvelously through the superb animation and would be next to impossible to realize in a live-action movie.
If you are in need of an unglamorized look into the human condition and its undying love affair with altered states try “Requiem for a Dream” or A&E’s “Intervention.” If you want to be numb and watch unfocused sci-fi for fans of “Dazed and Confused” and “Heavy Metal,” you’re in luck…”A Scanner Darkly” is for you. Hey man…my wizard has wicked huge invisibility points, I have every intention of throttling your troll.