Scanner Darkly, A (2006): Linklater’s Animation

Cannes Film Festival 2006–Richard Linklater is the only director who had two movies in the Cannes Film Festival this year. Unfortunately, both films are disappointments, albeit for different reasons. While the competition entry, “Fast Food Nation,” is a simplistic message movie that fails to dramatize its relevant subject and is replete with stereotypical characters (See Review), “A Scanner Darkly,” which world-premiered in the Certain Regard section,” doesn’t meet the high standards set by Linklater’s 2001 animation, “Waking Life.”

According to an old Jewish expression, troubles come in threesomes, and indeed, with the two Cannes films following the crappy and unnecessary remake of “The Bad News Bears,” which was an artistic and commercial flop, Linklater is now ready for a fresh start.
First, the good news: With “Scanner Darkly,” the iconic director, who has given us so many interesting indies (“Dazed and Confused,” “Before Sunrise”), is back to his indie and experimental roots.

Based on Phillip Dick’s story, “Scanner Darkly” is a futuristic sci-fi told, as was “Waking Life,” through rotoscoping, a process in which the images in a live-action film are traced over by animation artists, frame by frame, which gives the movie a more realistic yet still animated look.

While rotoscoping was a means to a goal in “Waking Life,” enhancing the movie’s surreal tone and existential themes, in “Scanner Darkly” the process seems to be a goal in its own right. If it weren’t animated, there wouldn’t be much about the film worth noting, since it follows Dick’s book quite closely.

Over the years, Dick’s rich oeuvre has inspired decent but not great films, such as Spielberg’s “Minority Report” and Paul Verhoeven’s “Total Recall.” There have also been some lousy ones, such as “Impostor” and “Paycheck.” “Scanner Darkly” is positioned somewhere between these two extreme poles.

The yarn is set in the near future, in California’s Orange County, a heavily surveilled region where many citizens are addicted to a new illicit drug, Substance D, named for causing “dumbness, despair, desertion and death.” The first sequence, in which junkie Charles Freck (Rory Cochrane) tries to get rid of the bugs that may or may not be crawling over his body, is striking and bizarre, setting expectations for an eerie and edgy movie, which, alas, never happens. (By the way, a similar act appears in Friedkin’s noir paranoia thriller “Bug,” which also premiered in Cannes this year in Directors Fortnight).

Freck isn’t the only one addicted to the mysterious drug. Robert Arctor (Keanu Reeves), the owner of an Anaheim tract home, in which Freck, Jim Barris (Robert Downey Jr.) and Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson) have taken up residence, works as an undercover narcotics agent named Officer Coops. His peers don’t know his real identity and mission, to expose a drug ring. Arctor is wearing a scramble suit that obscures all but his distinctive physical traits and voice.

An organization called New Path is providing rehab for recovering D addicts, but its methods are veiled in mystery and there is no access to its treatment centers. Plot kicks in when Barris rats out someone named Arctor as a drug dealer. Informant Barris is unaware (as are the cops) that he’s feeding this information to none other than a disguised Arctor.

Officer Fred is instructed to plant bugs in Arctor’s (his own) house and to secretly monitor all the activities of the dealers and addicts. Problem is, schizophrenic Officer Fred has been taking Substance D himself to infiltrate the drug ring.

Arctor is courting drug dealer Donna Hawthorne (Winona Ryder), hoping to find out who’s her supplier, while conducting surveillance on his own home, since one of the four residents is suspected of being Donna’s customer.

The secretive nature of Arctor’s profession serves as the catalyst for the tangled web of relationships, both personal and professional, hidden identities, and double-crosses.

Dick’s story serves as serviceable premise for Linklater, but he doesn’t take full advantage of tapping into the collective anxieties of the post 9/11era, such as government’s abuse of power, a consistent theme in Dick’s work. Indeed, for all its intriguing visuals, “Scanner Darkly” is a rather verbose yarn, lacking twists and turns or an edge.

During the first reel, the original style camouflages the narrative weaknesses, but then the inventiveness wears out and viewers are left with story that plods along, occasionally enlivened by the appealing cast and some impressive set-pieces.

Though reflecting Dick’s ideas about addiction and the danger of maintaining any privacy, Linklater misses the opportunity to link these themes to more current political problems, particularly the relevant issues of surveillance and the government’s abuse of its power.
Some of the new picture’s problems are contextual. Dick’s nightmarish novel about government surveillance and drug-fueled paranoia was published in 1977, right after the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, at the height of American cynicism and mistrust of the government.

However, seen today, with so many other (and better) films about paranoia, and with the public’s familiarity with dystopian tales like “Blade Runner,” there’s need for something else to sustain interest, let alone be inventive.

Even so, “Scanner Darkly” is a movie of moments, and rotoscoping allows for some dazzling set pieces, such as a Kafkaesque nightmare and Arctor’s scramble suit, a mesmerizing hologrammed outfit.