Chances are pretty good that if the film A Scanner Darkly had come out 20 years ago, when I was a freshman in college, I would have loved it. Back in those days, I was a huge fan of "adult" animation best typified by films like Rock & Rule and Ralph Bakshi's American Pop. Friday nights were often spent watching a bootleg copy of Heavy Metal while getting wasted, and far too many hours were spent debating whether Harrison Ford's character in Blade Runner was really a replicant. But I'm two decades older, I've discovered that Heavy Metal is not as good as I remember—especially when sober—and A Scanner Darkly simply doesn't warrant any sort of undying affection.
Based on the novel by Philip K. Dick, whose Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was the source material for Blade Runner, A Scanner Darkly takes place in the near future, where the highly addictive drug Substance D has ravaged much of the population. In the battle to keep the drug off the streets, the cops employ anonymous undercover agents clad in Scramble Suits, special holographic-projection suits that make whoever dons them appear to be anyone and everyone at the same time. "Fred" (Keanu Reeves) is such an agent, charged with the task of bringing down drug dealer Bob Arctor. The problem is that Fred and Bob Arctor are the same drug-addled person, whose brain has been warped from abusing Substance D and whose concept of reality is so skewed that there's no telling what is real and what is not.
Utilizing the same rotoscope animation technique he used for his pretentious Waking Life, director Richard Linklater once again has basically used a computer to animate over a movie he shot on video. The process almost seems innovative, until you realize Disney animators used similar tricks as far back as Snow White, and Bakshi built much of his career making such cartoons as Lord of the Rings in virtually the same way.
The key problem with A Scanner Darkly—and there are quite a few problems—is that it is difficult to tell if the film would be any good if it weren't animated. You spend more time trying to "see" the movie without the animation than you do just watching it, because, at the end of the day, the animation is more distracting than innovative, cleverly disguising what I suspect to be a film that isn't as good as it appears to be. Overall, the film is an improvement on Waking Life, one of the most excrutiating cinematic experiences of all time. But Linklater's direction tends to be flat; the script is so confusing that at some point you just want to throw in the towel; and some performances (most notably Woody Harrelson's) are painful to watch.
Ultimately, A Scanner Darkly is the sort of film that is going to prompt certain people to say things like, "Yeah, but if you watch it stoned it's really awesome, man." And that sort of ringing endorsement may work for some, but a viewing experience that needs to be enhanced by controlled substances isn't exactly something begging to be watched.
Opens Friday, July 14. Fox Tower.