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A Scanner Darkly

A Scanner Darkly is capable of inducing euphoria if viewers focus on one element of splendor--the acting, concept, dialogue or animation--per viewing. (It might take as many viewings to firmly grasp the plot, as well.) But trying to take it all in at once can lead to sensory overload and, even worse, boredom.


Imagine the sci-fi spirit of Blade Runner crossed with the drug-induced musings of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and set to trippy animation. Now consider that this animation plays like a book by Philip K. Dick (who also penned Blade Runner"s novel), and you"re likely spinning with imagery; welcome to A Scanner Darkly. Set in Anaheim, California, seven years into the future, an undercover narc named Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) is assigned to spy on his druggie friends (Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder and Rory Cochrane). They"re all hooked on Substance D, the latest suburban drug, and its side effects--including possible manifestation of separate identities--can be downright nasty. Unfortunately, Bob, the "scanner," is hooked too, and he leads the ultimate double life, unbeknownst to him: By day, he partakes in "D" consumption; by night, he watches the surveillance tapes as a cop--not realizing he may, in turn, be spying on himself.


Scanner marks a welcome return of sorts for all five actors to their more decadent (cinematic) days. Downey and Harrelson are up to their old Natural Born Killers tricks, even though their characters share nothing other than insanity with those in Oliver Stone"s movie. Downey, perennially the most underrated actor, steals every scene he"s in with his character James" mile-a-minute psychobabble. Not far off is Reeves, who somehow grasps Bob"s drug-induced psychosis almost too well and is much more comfy (and likable) playing the central character in a film that"s not carrying an entire production company. We haven"t seen Ryder in a major release since "02"s Mr. Deeds, and although her part isn"t as meaty as the boys", she gives a compelling performance. And Cochrane, whose breakout role was the dopey burnout in Scanner director Richard Linklater"s Dazed and Confused, is an often funny casualty of the paranoia associated with Substance D.


Linklater"s last release was Bad News Bears, and his next is October"s Fast Food Nation. Clearly, and to his credit, no director offers us as much variety, with so many of his films clicking on all cylinders; to his discredit, however, parts of his latest film don"t click. The biggest flaw is the animation, which, while truly amazing to behold, detaches us. What began as a winning experiment--on his 2001 philosoph-ilm Waking Life--can no longer be dismissed as such, but rather a gimmick behind which Scanner hides. Sure, it"s apt for Dick"s futuristic dystopia, but this film didn"t need any added complexity to bog our brains down. In addition, Linklater"s Scanner outcasts fail where his others have been immortalized: They don"t endear us--yes, that truth is faithful to the source material, but films can"t get away with such disconnect. Ultimately, all we feel towards the characters is fascination over their animated likenesses. But Linklater is praiseworthy for even tackling such a novel, and the adaptation will find a fervent cult following.

Bottom Line rated this film 2 1/2 stars.