December 2, 2006 -- “A Scanner Darkly” is a motion-capture animated adaptation of a futuristic Philip K. Dick novel. The story is a basic crime drama, but it achieves more than most by the use of mind-altering drugs and a vast shadowy conspiracy. It takes place in a future society in which corporations have become all powerful, no wait, that's the way it is right now. It is also depicts government surveillance that creeps into every part of people's lives. Well, that's not to far off, either.
There are some interesting plot twists I won't reveal here. The animation, based on a process called interpolated rotoscoping, is similar to, but more refined than the process used to create “Waking Life,” another film by the same director, Richard Linklater. While the motion-capture animation is interesting, it still can't reproduce subtle facial expressions, and that is a major drawback here. The central part of the story is about the deteriorating mental condition of Bob Arctor (played by Keanu Reeves of “Constantine”). Arctor is slowly falling apart under the influence of a highly addictive drug, called Substance D.
Several of Bob's druggie friends are also on Substance D. They are James Barris (played by Robert Downey Jr. of “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang”), Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson of “Natural Born Killers”) and Charles Freck (Rory Cochrane of “Dogtown”). As their thoughts become more and more disconnected from reality, it becomes harder and harder to tell what is real and what is imagined. It also becomes hard to tell who is stabbing who in the back. Barris is a fascinating character because he almost seems to make sense, even when he is talking nonsense. Downey, of course has had real problems with substance abuse over the years, so he probably has a better handle on this kind of character (who he describes as being “off the hook”) than most actors. Winona Ryder of “How To Make an American Quilt” plays Donna, Bob's girlfriend.
I think this is a film that would have been more effective as live action, rather than animation. While the story is interesting, and it has a twist at the end, and it has something to say about current events, it isn't all that compelling. The problem is, the action is mostly internal, not external. The plot is less important than what's happening inside the minds of the characters. This is mainly for Philip K. Dick fans. I haven't read the book, so I can't speak to how well it is adapted in this film. I saw this film on DVD, and there is some discussion of the adaptation in the extras. The acting is generally solid by stars Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson and Winona Ryder. This film rates a C+.
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