A SCANNER DARKLY directed by Richard Linklater, written by Linklater from Philip K. Dick's novel, with Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson and Winona Ryder. 100 minutes. A Warner Independent Pictures release. Opens Friday (July 7). For venues and times, see Movies, page 99. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
It's easy to see why Richard Linklater is attracted to the works of Philip K. Dick. From Slackers (1991) through 2001's Waking Life, he's always been interested in questions of identity and reality and theories of the mind, and less interested in conventional narrative - all key elements in Dick's work.
In A Scanner Darkly, Linklater offers good rotoscope animation and a remarkably faithful telling of Dick's quasi-science-fictional novel about the gradual burnout of an undercover cop (Keanu Reeves) who forgets that he himself is the doper he's investigating. But the film never quite fulfills the potential either of the tale or the method of telling.
Dick explicitly makes his characters typical everystoners, just a few among many, then tracks their slow decline. Linklater is less heartbroken at the death of minds. He grew up in a stoner culture, while Dick, born in 1928, did not. Linklater buries the social dimension so far in the background that unless you know people like these characters (and lots of us do), it's easy to dismiss them as just funny losers, a stance the distancing effect of animation encourages.
At the same time, he loses Dick's narrative voice, although virtually all the dialogue and events come straight from the novel. That voice goes deep into the drab horrors of deteriorating minds and a deteriorating society and demonstrates how the stoners have just traded the straight-life treadmill for one even more tedious and demeaning.
Linklater does keep Dick's sense of humour, though. The nine-geared bicycle scene is a wastoid classic, worthy of Cheech and Chong at their best. He's also got a good sense of aimless lives and the resulting paranoia.
Animator Bob Sabiston has created a more consistent and sedate look than the one he used for Waking Life. Stark spots of colour suggest the world seen through the after-effects of acid cut with cheap speed, which adds much to the mood. Otherwise, there's not much livelier here than on, say, King Of The Hill.
Except for Winona Ryder, who does nothing special, the performances are big fun. Woody Harrelson and Robert Downey Jr. are hilarious as addled dopers, and star Reeves has never been more animated. That makes him less believable as a burnout, but anything's an improvement in an actor whose usual range is wooden to leaden.