Another Philip K. Dick story has been adapted for the screen, and this time it’s by one of independent film’s most promising directors, Richard Linklater (“Fast Food Nation”). Their collective fanbase has been anticipating this weekend, with art theaters gearing up for the droves of intellectuals. But high expectations may give way to disappointment in this very low-key adaptation of a high-impact story.
“A Scanner Darkly” takes place in 2013 Annaheim, where 20 percent of the population has become addicted to a new drug, “substance D.” Keanu Reeves plays Bob Arcter, an undercover cop with a shady past that’s never quite explained, whose mission is to climb the drug world’s ladder in search of its kingpin. In the name of duty, Arcter becomes addicted to the very drug he is attempting to eradicate, and the film descends into the dark recesses of his deteriorating mind.
With “A Scanner Darkly,” Linklater revives an animation technique from his 2001 feature, “Waking Life.” The film is rhotoscoped, filmed in real time with real actors and sets, then “painted” over in post-production. The question is: Why? Rhotoscoping was integral to the exploratory, philosophical nature of “Waking Life.” It provided Linklater with the room to portray his characters and settings in a way that challenged the audience to reevaluate their ideas of perception. The animation of “A Scanner Darkly” helps to produce the unreality that comes along with the main character’s (and what feels like the world’s) addiction. But it also deprives the audience of an immediacy that could have lent the film a much-needed feeling of command.
Like every Linklater production, the film moves quickly. We’re rapidly introduced to new ideas and subtle plot twists that make you question what we thought we knew about the story. With material this urgent, the viewer should be on the edge of her seat. But something is missing.
The film’s epilogue, a dedication by Philip K. Dick, rolls in silence before the credits. It’s a devotional message for the author’s friends who he lost to drugs. And it is by far the most penetrating, most effective moment of the film.
“A Scanner Darkly” is clearly a labor of love for Linklater. There’s an obvious passion behind the product, and the director is drawing from brilliant source material; the acting is competent, and the film intelligently rendered. Somehow, it just doesn’t grab hold of the audience like it should. It’s not a yawner; Linklater keeps us interested, but in a passive, pedestrian way.
The film is adapted faithfully from the original text, which is as much an positive attribute as it is the film’s biggest hindrance. Linklater has made a reliable name for himself in the independent film world, and “A Scanner Darkly” is a success, but fiction does not work in the same way as film, and while the movie’s closeness to its source is valuable, Dick’s narrative should have been the foundation, not the realization, of the project.
Rating: Three out of five stars
A Scanner Darkly
At the Michigan Theater