A war on drugs. Government surveillance. A populace careening between utter disregard, myopic self-indulgence and paranoia. Such was the stuff of Philip K. Dick's oddly prescient 1977 novel, A Scanner Darkly, now adapted by filmmaker Richard Linklater.
The noir-ish sci-fi tale is set in the proverbial near future. People are wacked out on Substance D, even as the government brings its full weight to bear on containing the illegal drug. In the suburban ennui of Anaheim, Robert Arctor (Keanu Reeves) is an undercover narc, sharing a shabby tract home with two strung-out pals, Barris (Robert Downey Jr.) and Ernie (Woody Harrelson), while pursuing a semi-romance with a drug dealer, Donna (Winona Ryder). Typical of deep cover, Arctor's hooked on Substance D too.
Arctor's halfway to a breakdown, but things are about to get more complicated in his already disjointed reality. He is asked by his superiors ... who have only ever seen him in a full holographic disguise ... to spy on "Robert Arctor," even as one of his housemates begins informing on Arctor to Arctor's disguised-cop persona. It's a mind-bend of who's zooming who, even within a single character's head.
In Scanner, Linklater employs interpolated rotoscoping, a technique he first used in 2001's A Waking Life. The film was shot using actors, then painstakingly re-painted to create life-like animation. It's a technique that occasionally feels effective ... characters who look simultaneously real and unreal are a good fit for Dick's wigged-out reality.
But Scanner is mostly a talky film, with scene after scene of the drugged-up crew rambling, berating each other, monologuing. Here, I found the animation created unnecessary distance, and made the characters even more ... well ... cartoonish. Such moments might have benefited from watching real actors, with their practiced subtleties. As much as you can sort out the actors from their stylized images, there are typically manic performances from Harrelson and Downey; Reeves is again the laconic brooder.
The technique isn't all bad. In an early scene, Arctor gives a pep talk to a room of cops, in which his brain flip-flops between his rehearsed anti-drug speech and drug-induced hallucinations. We're simultaneously in the room of baffled cops and in both parts of Arctor's head; the scene is disorienting, and weirdly exhilarating, and a great example of how film and an inventive technique can make such bizarre moments seem immediate and visceral.
Linklater has taken Scanner's intriguing and generically familiar themes ... the psychic dislocation of the modern world; a justifiable paranoia; a slippery sense of self ... and run them through a nontraditional visual form. It's often cool to look at, but the style and substance just don't coalesce well. Where the narrative should be provocative, it grows murky and muted, lost in a gloomy swirl of a live-action Paint-By-Number.