Chances are you're not going to see "A Scanner Darkly." After all, who wants to watch a strange, quasi-science-fiction film in a weird animation style starring Keanu Reeves? Okay, so I did, and I somewhat liked the odd film, but it certainly didn't live up to expectations.
From the previews, it is impossible to know what "A Scanner Darkly" is truly about. The previews indicate that in the near future, a big brother society is watching everything we say and do, and that one man is targeted by the government. In reality, the film is about drug addiction, but it goes far beyond that. Reeves plays a man addicted to a drug called Substance D (for Death), who realizes that the drug is causing permanent brain damage yet never truly attempts to stop himself. To make matters worse, he is suspected of being a drug dealer supplying money to terrorists - but he is also the undercover officer assigned to watch him - yes, watch himself. Since he is an undercover officer, he wears a special suit that conceals his identity at all times - even his supervisor doesn't know his true identity. So, the movie is about a cop tasked with finding evidence on a suspected drug dealer, who just happens to be himself, and who is also suffering from a vibrant distortion of reality as a side effect of the drug.
Sound weird enough?
The movie works on certain levels, and not on others. Its characters are deep and well-written, and with the unique animation style, their expressions are brought out even more than in real life. After all, the animation is more limited than in real life and thus the animators are forced to focus on the parts of the face that are most important, thus giving those areas more emphasis. Either way, "A Scanner Darkly" is full of rich and entertaining characters, from the rather dry and somber protagonist (Reeves) to his friends (Woody Harrelson and Robert Downey, Jr., who spend most of the time fighting and arguing with one another). Winona Ryder also plays a big yet mildly unsatisfying (though ultimately important) part as the reluctant girlfriend.
The dialogue exchanges between the various characters, especially any involving Downey Jr., are exceptional and really breathe life into what would have otherwise been a very depressing film. The characters are funny yet ultimately fatalistic, as they are all on a drug that will eventually kill them.
The animation is both the film's biggest asset and also its biggest shortcoming. Okay, not really, but that sounds more dramatic. The animation style takes a little while getting used to, but there are times, especially in night scenes, where you don't even notice that the characters are animated. Of course, the film, written and directed by Richard Linklater, who also used the technique in 2001's "Waking Life," actually live-captured the actors, and then animation was applied as a special effect afterwards. Some have called this form of animation the next step to successful science fiction and other storytelling devices, as it is cheap to execute yet allows you to do just about anything. I have to disagree, as while there are plenty of times where the animation is pretty neat, there are other times where it just never works as well as live action. Some scenes focus in on certain objects, but each surrounding object seems to float there and they just move in respect to artistic perspective. Sort of cool, sort of cheap looking.
In fact, though, the movie struggles only in its pacing. The movie is odd, which is okay, but it doesn't always capture the attention or imagination as much as Linklater was hoping for. For most of the third act, you begin to realize that there may be no hope for the characters, and thus you begin to lose interest. The twist ending saves the film quite a bit, but that doesn't completely make up for an uninspiring middle section.
"A Scanner Darkly" is a smart and edgy film with great dialogue and a good ending, but the movie occasionally loses its grasp on reality at times - that is, that it is a movie and needs to entertain from beginning to end.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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