Well, no one could ever accuse Richard Linklater of playing it safe. A Scanner Darkly may have a star-studded cast, albeit of the easily-lambasted variety (Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder, Robert Downey Jr, Woody Harrelson), but the film is undoubtedly one of the least audience-friendly films I’ve seen come from a major director for quite some time. Perhaps as a way of cleansing himself of the kiddie residue of Bad News Bears, Linklater has taken a significantly disorienting approach to adapting Philip K. Dick’s sci-fi novel, and not just in its technical audacity.
“It’s like Waking Life!” many will snort…but it’s really, truly not. Apart from its narrative cohesion (though that may be a dastardly inappropriate word choice), A Scanner Darkly differs from Waking Life in the unity of its visuals. This isn’t a stylistic free-for-all like that earlier animated film, which had as many different types of animations as it did rambling, giddy philosophizers; this is a single vision, thoroughly committed to its source material, and very much in step with its central auteur’s body of work. This latter point is where perhaps the film is most unique: though the film is set in the future, Linklater does everything he can to ground it in recognizable, if slightly drug-addled, human interaction. Covered in goopy layers of digital rotoscopic gloss though they may be, the central characters aren’t above descending into rootless jargon or argumentation: the animation may seem to elevate the actors to a different plane of consciousness, yet Linklater never lets the sci-fi trappings get the better of them—Reeves, Ryder, Harrelson, and (a very taxing and mannered) Downey spend a seeming eternity arguing in a trashy suburban living room about how many speeds a pilfered bike boasts. This sort of tedium is central to the vision of A Scanner Darkly, which unfolds in such a baffling, overtly performative (except for Reeves, whose odd mix of earnestness and vacancy works brilliantly and reassuringly here), and rambling manner, that many may run for the exits, especially those eagerly waiting a succession of cool sci-fi gadgets and gizmos.
This is the film’s most difficult narrative hurdle, as well as the key to unlocking its MO: science fiction, per se, takes a back seat to human interaction, as any genre does in any given Linklater film. The plot as is, which is much like Dick’s Minority Report trajectory (undercover cop ends up investigating himself, unbeknownst to his superiors, while descending into addiction), ultimately seems less substantial, or even stable, than it initially seems. It’s really hard to get a handle on any of the characters, seeing as how back story is nearly eradicated, and everyone seems to exist in a disturbingly fixed present. As a “head trip” movie, it’s almost as sustained and upsetting as Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, yet it doesn’t aspire to that film’s epic psychological grandeur. This is small, alarmingly so, with a suffocating headspace. It’s a film first and last about addiction, and all the narrative twists only work to underline this fact. Most revelatory is how Linklater’s talkative, free-associative style, which is usually confined to restricted time narratives (Slacker, Dazed and Confused, SubUrbia, Before Sunrise and Sunset, Tape, Waking Life), works as a wonderful approximation of Dick’s head-on dives into sci-fi stream of consciousness. It’s a lovely match-up, disorienting and strange, and requiring a second viewing, surely.