The long-awaited adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s parascifinoia novel, A Scanner Darkly arrives not with a bang, but with a whimper. With the admission that I haven’t read a single word of the book, I’m going to guess it’s a rather faithful adaptation, with a few dialogue improvisations that rather enhance the ponderous tone.
Keanu Reeves is a big part of the ponder problem. There are certain roles where his ability to underact and be hammy at the same time fit the movie — the original Matrix comes to mind — and there are other roles that he should never attempt such as any Shakespeare (Much Ado About Nothing) or this one. After an energetic and Keanu-free bug-hallucination opening, Keanu murders the movie with an excruciating public address. Robert Downey Jr. and Woody Harrelson, as live-in manic foils, try their best to perform CPR. But since the main plot involves Keanu (and a useless Winona Ryder), any time it begins breathing it is once again suffocated.
The actual plot isn’t bad. The political message of the movie remains timely, despite the two-year plus delay due to problems with the rotoscope animation method. (This method of, essentially, tracing live action, first used by Linklater in the film for philosophy majors, Waking Life, suits this story quite well.) Set seven years in the future, the world is ravaged by a super-addictive drug Substance D and the government, to fight it, has enacted spying to an unprecedented degree. Agitators are quickly whisked away in black vans, never to be heard of again.
How, in a world where everyone is being watched 24/7, a group of druggies can maintain a luxuriously dissipated lifestyle is anyone’s guess. The mixture of the real and unreal is so seamless in this movie, that when you reach what is supposed to be true, you’re too suspicious to believe it. It’s the movie equivalent of the boy who cried wolf.
One the other hand, I’m grateful that this movie was made in the quirky way it was. Sci-fi is a rough beast, and an off-beat approach is much appreciated. I wouldn’t trade Scanner for a thousand Hollywoodized I, Robots. For what there is to like, this is a solid rental.