If you ever had a stoner roommate whose friends dropped over, ate your food and talked for hours and hours about totally mundane shit that seemed deeply profound to them at the time, then you’ve already seen most of this movie.
That’s not to say A Scanner Darkly isn’t worth seeing, if only for its surprising faithfulness to the source material. By and large, the fiction of the Philip K. Dick has not been well treated by those turning it into movies. The obvious exception is Blade Runner of course, but Ridley Scott’s influential 1982 film barely bore a family resemblance to the novel on which it was based, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Minority Report is another Dick film (oh, does that sound wrong!) that mostly borrows a few of the author’s ideas before heading off in its own direction. Richard Linklater’s film seems to get one thing right that other Philip K. Dick adaptations have missed and that’s the off-kilter rhythms of the author’s language. The lines coming from each character’s mouth have quasi-realistic sense of unreality to them, if that makes any sense at all. The writing is anything but naturalistic, but the tone of the film keeps that unreality totally consistent.
The movie is also shot in a weird combination of live action and animation in which the live actors are rotoscoped, meaning that characters played by Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey, Jr. and Woody Harrelson look like the actors playing them and they inhabit a stylized version of a realistic world. Oddly, Winona Ryder looks less like herself than any other major actor in the movie. If you are going to have Winona Ryder in a movie and not have her look like Winona Ryder, what is the point? On the plus side, the animated look emphasizes the not-quite-real nature of the lives of these characters and, while the performances do seem a bit out-sized, they are perfectly modulated for an animated film about junkies, if that makes any sense at all, either.
The world of A Scanner Darkly is “seven years from now,” when America is besieged by mass addiction to a drug known as Substance D, whose long term effects are split personalities and severe psychosis. Reeves plays “Fred,” an undercover detective investigating a Substance D dealer named Bob Arctor. Because “Fred” wears a “scramble suit” which electronically distorts his appearance, even his superiors are unaware that “Fred” is really Arctor himself.
Bob lives with his continually stoned pals Barris (Downey) and Luckman (Harrelson) as well as his girlfriend, Donna (Ryder), where they have long, long discussions about whether Barris’ new (and probably stolen) bicycle has eighteen gears or eight. Man, Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey, Jr and Woody Harrelson in a movie about stoners and junkies. Talk about typecasting.
This is where the movie fails to work for me. While it creates a convincingly shiftless and addled life for its addict characters (and Lord knows, Philip K. Dick was writing from considerable personal experience with this world), the plot and the world in which the film occurs never brings them to life. America “seven years from now” is on the verge of becoming a police surveillance state in response to the threat of Substance D, but this is never satisfactorily explored, even through the drugged-out eyes of its main characters.
The issue of civil liberties being eroded in the name of fighting drugs is one worth delving into, but this film prefers to spend its time hanging out with a bunch of stoners and never gets off its ass and does anything.