- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 13, 2006

Philip K. Dick was a writer obsessed with reality. His enormous body of work seems to question whether we’re all just characters in one of God’s dreams. So perhaps it’s fitting that his most realistic novel has now been turned into an animated film, “A Scanner Darkly.”

Since his death in 1982, Mr. Dick’s novels and stories have inspired seven feature films, some successful (“Blade Runner,” “Total Recall,” “Minority Report”), some not (“Paycheck,” “Impostor,” “Screamers”). This eighth, an affecting dark comedy by “Slacker” director Richard Linklater, deserves to end up in the former category.

“Scanner” was filmed the traditional way. But in a process called rotoscoping, animators traced over the live-action images and colored them in. Mr. Linklater used the same process in his 2001 film “Waking Life,” although the technique has improved since then. The result is a very realistic cartoon.

The technique is distracting at first. Trigger-happy animators, for example, make characters’ hair move even when they are standing still. And while Graham Reynolds’ score and the atmospheric avant-garde music of Radiohead do sound like music from the future, they’re overused in the film’s first half-hour.

Luckily, these distractions don’t dampen some very good performances. Keanu Reeves adds to his science-fiction hero resume with his dual role as Agent Fred/Bob Arctor. Agent Fred is an undercover narcotics officer whose real identity is unknown even to his superiors. Agents must wear “scramble suits” that shuffle through human images, so the wearer never appears the same way twice. (This plot point alone might justify making the movie an animated one.)

Underneath is Bob Arctor, a drug addict who got hooked on the pills he had to take as an undercover agent. Arctor is told to step up surveillance on his friends — and himself. Complications ensue when Substance D, the drug of choice in this near future, causes the two hemispheres of his brain to disconnect. Bob doesn’t know he’s also Fred, and Fred doesn’t know he’s also Bob.

Mr. Reeves’ talents are best used playing this kind of confused Everyman. Simmering resentment and anger are his specialties. Robert Downey Jr., no stranger to drug abuse himself, is a frenetic Jim Barris, a magnetic but slimy friend of Arctor’s. One sometimes forgets he’s not the movie’s protagonist. Rory Cochrane, who previously appeared in the director’s “Dazed and Confused,” and Woody Harrelson are very funny as the other half of this drug-addled crew.

Winona Ryder — far too scarce on the big screen the last few years — is Arctor’s love interest. Miss Ryder is perfect as the sweet but complex Donna Hawthorne, a dealer whose drug use keeps her from getting too close to anyone.

Substance D — the “D” stands for “Death” — is as addictive as heroin and more attractive. As Barris says, “You’re either on it or you haven’t tried it.” It’s certainly changed Arctor’s life. He used to be married with two children. (Or was he? The film can be an infuriating tease once we realize how confused Arctor’s reality has become.) His life now is more dangerous, but also more interesting. “Now ugly things, surprising things, and little wondrous things jump out at me constantly,” he marvels.

“A Scanner Darkly” was based on Mr. Dick’s own experimentation with drugs. Some critics see the film as a commentary on the war on drugs, while others see it as a warning against government surveillance. But it is something more personal than either of these — a cautionary tale about the damage drugs can do.

Mr. Linklater’s thoughtful movie is slow going at first; it takes a while to get to the payoff. But when it does, it turns into an oddly life-affirming film. Viewers who are willing to wait (and untangle a sometimes complicated plot) will be rewarded with some touching twists at the end.

***

TITLE: “A Scanner Darkly”

RATING: R (drug and animated sexual content, language and a brief violent image)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Richard Linklater based on the novel by Philip K. Dick. Produced by Tommy Pallotta, Jonah Smith, Erwin Stoff, Anne Walker-McBay and Palmer West.

RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes

WEB SITE: wip.warnerbros.com/

0index.html?site=ascannerdarkly

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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