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Warner Independent Pictures

Official Site

Director: Richard Linklater

Producers: Palmer West, Jonah Smith, Erwin Stoff, Tommy Pallotta, Anne Walker-McBay

Written by: Richard Linklater (screenplay); Philip K. Dick (novel),

Cast: Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder


Can a reviewer see into a movie? Does he see clearly or darkly? I think I see darkly.

I really wanted to like A Scanner Darkly. It has everything I like: animation, political commentary, and whacked-out drug scenes. But somehow it didn’t pull together. Right about now, I’m wishing that I had read the book to know if Philip Dick wrote a broken story or if Linklater broke the story himself. I am going to assume that a man as celebrated as Philip K. Dick could weave together a compelling story with striking political commentary and dizzying mind-fucks. I liked Waking Life, but Richard Linklater seemed to miss the mark this time.

Allow me to paraphrase a plot summary for the book that I found on a wonderful website about Philip Dick. An undercover cop code-named Fred is assigned to find a dealer named Bob Arctor. Fred has been consuming large quantities of Substance D, which splits the brain into two opposed entities, in his undercover life. Fred loses his grip on reality and fails to realize that he is Bob Arctor; he has been investigating himself. That sounds like pretty hot sci-fi shit to me.

The movie has a slightly different plot. Fred is working his way up the drug distribution chain to get to the highest source of Substance D. His life is falling apart as the D tears his psyche asunder. He becomes a victim of the culture of paranoia and can no longer handle himself in the most basic capacities that his job demands. Is his sacrifice justified in this police-state future, or has he given his sanity away to a corrupt cause? Keep in mind I spiced that up to make it sound much cooler than it actually is.

The film focuses too much on the day–to-day drugged-out life of Bob Arctor and the collapsing reality of Fred. The squalor that he lives in and the “friends” that he lives with tell far more of the story than they should. I need to know more about the future he lives in. I need to know why Bob Arctor decided to become a cop. I need to know that this isn’t ‘Fear and Loathing in the Future,’ but that’s basically all I took from the film. Given that the story had serious inadequacies, I’m now left to wonder what else went wrong. Do I blame Keanu for playing an ambiguous role poorly? I’m a little hesitant to do that because Keanu might have just played the best he could with the hand he was dealt. But I would have preferred someone else cast in that role. Is anyone else tired of seeing Keanu in the psychological/metaphysical thriller roles? “Whoa…”

Now for the good parts. Robert Downey Jr. stole the show. He had the best part and he played it well. His character, Barris, was the Captain Jack Sparrow of Orange County, who also happened to be an amoral tweaker with too much time on his hands and shit in his system. Next is Woody Harrelson, who played the lovable druggie, Ernie. These two characters form the central comedic conflict of the movie. If you simply want to see two drugged-out idiots debate conspiracy theory with one another about how and why the car broke down, then these two will give you all you need.

However, if you’re like me and you want more from a movie based on a Philip K. Dick work, then you’ll have to wait until someone makes a movie with more than 100 minutes of footage, so that the story can be fully fleshed out.

—Duncan Wright


hybridCinema Ratings Guide:

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