The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
A Scanner Darkly

Reviewed by James MacDowell.

Director Richard Linklater
Length 100 mins
Certificate 15
Rating ********--
Filmmaking: 4  Personal enjoyment: 4

Photo from the article "Seven years from now", California has turned into a surveillance-controlled police state, with twenty percent of its population addicted to the dangerous hallucinogenic drug du jour, Substance D. Undercover narcotics officer, Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves), is posing as an addict of the substance in order to bring down a dealer (Winona Ryder) and her clients (including Robert Downey Jr. and Woody Harrelson), but finds himself instead starting to become a junkie for real.

Like director Linklater's Waking Life (2001), A Scanner Darkly has been made using the animation effect rotoscoping: that is, live images being drawn over digitally, creating the impression of a 'real-life cartoon'. The approach is even more apt here than in that earlier dream-within-a-dream film, and effortlessly creates all kinds of thematic reverberations for a story that is all about losing sight of reality and one's identity. It is perhaps needless to say that the style also makes for a visually stunning cinematic experience: sets shift and slide, faces change their features, colours are simultaneously simplified into blocks and somehow deepened. As my Alternate Take will discuss, this is a film whose form and content are inextricably tied to a degree that is truly inspired, and the infinite play of meaning back and forth between the two is enough to recommend the film alone.

It does have its occasional problems. Linklater has repeatedly stated that he considers Phillip K. Dick's source novel to be a comedy, and as such has dedicated a good portion of his film's running time to rambling scenes that exude an absurd sense of stoner humour. Sometimes this approach works well as an instructive contrast to the philosophical and political paranoia governing the overall story's logic, but there are equally times when it simply acts to upset the tone and detract somewhat from the impact of the surrounding drama. It also certainly doesn't help that, whilst most of these portions are amusing in a desperate kind of way, none is actually hugely funny in and of itself.

When it gets down to business, however, the film is simply one of the most intelligent, moving and satisfying borderline-sci-fi movies for some time. The growing sense of claustrophobia and doom it manages to reach in its final act in fact belongs up there with the better existential/political dramas of the 70s Renaissance, such as Copolla's The Conversation (1974). At moments like this, when it is operating at full-tilt, A Scanner Darkly manages to feel very timely - even important - and at the very least heralds the growth of yet another impressive feather in the ever-expanding cinematic cap of Richard Linklater.

This review was published on August 30, 2006.

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