In 2001, Richard Linklater’s WAKING LIFE merged live action with animation via a process called “interpolated rotoscoping”, creating a fluid visual tableau that one could best liken to watching a painting coming to life. Much of its appeal came from the initial excitement that you were seeing something dazzling that hadn’t been attempted before. However, the style was also a perfect fit for that film’s equally fluid, experimental narrative and playful concern with dreams and ever-shifting states of consciousness.
Used sparingly since then (mostly notably in brief snippets of Jia Zhangke’s THE WORLD), Linklater returns to it for this adaptation of one of sci-fi legend Philip K. Dick’s best-known novels. Five years on, that technology's initial excitement hasn’t worn off—actually, it’s what nearly saves the film. Set “seven years in the future”, Dick’s convoluted, cyclical narrative about Bob Arctor (a well-cast Keanu Reeves), a drug addict secretly posing as his own narc, seems almost like an afterthought. As an ordinary live action film, it might play like a more cerebral, rambling rip-off of THE MATRIX.
Fortunately, the rotoscoping adds significant layers to what we see, and not all of them are merely aesthetic. Sure, the technology makes possible a score of things that live action can’t, from the opening credits’ suitably creepy aphid infestation to the mind-boggling “scramble suits” that appear throughout. Still, the animation’s surreal contours fittingly emphasize and heighten Dick’s dystopian outlook to the point where you could describe it to your stoner friends as the ultimate head film, but only if it weren’t so pessimistic about the negative effects of addiction.
A SCANNER DARKLY has that neat yin/yang structure, along with a good supporting cast (Robert Downey Jr. is superb as—get this—a paranoid, motormouthed dealer!), and all the subtlety, ecstatically talky dialogue and humor (though a few shades blacker than usual) you’d expect in a Linklater film. So, why does it ultimately impress me less than SLACKER, WAKING LIFE, or even a comparative trifle like THE SCHOOL OF ROCK? Maybe Linklater’s not a convincing pessimist, or perhaps the problem is Dick—I’m not familiar with his novel, but it's possible that even the most intuitive filmmaker could never fully translate what made Dick tick and resonate to his readers. Either way, so much of this film was impressive, but it left me feeling a little cold and uninvolved in the end. Was what I enjoyed just due to a temporary contact high? (3.5/5)