The imaginative works of Philip K. Dick can often identified by several key elements, namely the tenuous authority of law enforcement as well as the intangible nature of self-identity, memories and experience, especially where it relates to drug abuse and/or mental instability. Sometimes these concepts and themes are virtually impossible to port over into the language of cinema. For example, after reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, I'm convinced that Blade Runner would have been a complete and total train wreck if Ridley Scott and his screenwriters had adapted the book verbatim.
A Scanner Darkly tries to be more faithful to the original source material and it actually suffers as a result. That's not to say that there isn't a lot of interesting things going on in this picture, I just think that the average shmoe will likely spend more time trying to puzzle out what's the heck's going on versus pondering the weighty ramifications inherent in the author's original story.
A more balanced adaptation of Dick's work, such as Minority Report, gives the audience plenty of deep thoughts to grapple with but also provides a few opportunities to process what we've seen thus far and adapt to the ever-changing landscape. A Scanner Darkly offers precious few moments of reprieve.
The film posits yet another dystopian future, this one awash with a highly-addictive psychotropic drug called "Substance D". In reaction to this epidemic, the government has installed a virtually-omniscient surveillance system and a pervasive web of informants and undercover agents.
One such agent is Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) who's been tasked to root out suppliers and pushers by infiltrating the local drug scene. He soon finds himself embedded with two tweaky addicts named James Barris (Robert Downey Jr.) and Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson) and eventually he begins to slip into their world of experimentation and addiction.
Added to this are several parallel subplots involving Bob's law enforcement alter ego, a suspect friend who's trying to turn informant, his asexual relationship with a seemingly-incongruous cocaine addict named Donna Hawthorne (Winona Ryder) and a deeper plunge into addiction which begins with euphoria but then quickly deteriorates into hallucinations, lapses in judgement and acute paranoia. This leads to a twist resolution when the real reason for Bob's assignment comes to light, leaving the audience to ponder whether or not the ends justify the means.
Here's my main issue with the film: I actually had to do some research in order to come up with that disjointed plot summary. I have no problem applying a bit of guesswork to what I'm watching, especially when you consider just how lazy modern audiences in are when it comes to having everything spelled out for them. Having said that, I was constantly forced to make assumptions about things that should have been implicit right from the get-go.
Now I can understand director Richard Linklater's desire to keep things ethereal in order to drive home feelings of disorientation, but if you feel completely rudderless right from the start, it's hard to get invested in what's happening. Granted some of these distractions are niggling, such as how the "scramble suits" offer no practical purpose in drug enforcement whatsoever and only seem to exist to justify the twist ending. But then there are some serious "WTF?!?" moments, like when Arctor is diagnosed by police scientists as mentally damaged yet he's sent right back into active duty. Granted this is eventually addressed somewhat but mysteries should always make a movie more compulsively watchable instead of frustrating and maddening. Indeed, A Scanner Darkly often feels like the cinematic equivalent of a game of keep-away.
Much hay has been made of the film's modern Ralph Bakshi visual style. Linklater probably opted for animation in order to effectively realize the trippy, drug-related sequences but while I was watching A Scanner Darkly I was constantly reminded of certain anime films in which the palette is more compelling than the "lost in translation" storyline. In a truly great film these elements are collaborative, not competitive.
Despite the film's central issues, the performances are all universally stellar. Even animated, Robert Downey Jr. exhibits his characteristic natural genius and his physical effort alone makes the film worth watching. Not only does he invest the already-great dialogue with plenty of subtleties, his ability to inject some much-needed comedy relief into this relentlessly dark script is most welcome. Rotoscoped or not, this is a fine addition to his on-screen pantheon.
Also of note is Woody Harrelson's gonzo turn as Ernie, a mid-stage "Substance D" user who's odd behavior falls somewhere between Barris and the downright-psychotic Charles Freck (Rory Cochrane). Even Keanu Reeves, who I've criticized in the past, acquits himself quite nicely as our unfortunate protagonist. Collectively, the housemates are the most darkly comedic and dysfunctional group I've seen on film in recent memory. They're all completely paranoid, trying to narc and/or spy on one another while still retaining an odd solidarity in the face of external threats.
Although the film-maker's motivations were sincere, brilliance on the printed page doesn't always translate into compelling cinema. Perhaps I'll revisit the film some day and it'll flow a bit better. Until then I have to describe A Scanner Darkly as an honest, committed and complicated little effort, diluted somewhat by an overtly-literal adaptation of the original literary source.