Bright intimations of a more audacious animation

Published July 27, 2006

A Scanner Darkly (R) (100 min.) - Richard Linklater's film entrances the eye as it stimulates the brain, unlike his first foray into rotoscoping animation, 2001's Waking Life. Rotoscoping is a process of filming live action and performances, then digitally "painting" them to resemble a moving graphic novel. Waking Life was all style and too much substance to be entertaining, a series of pretentious, navel-gazing conversations that made the technology seem duller than its potential.

The semblance of a story in A Scanner Darkly makes the difference between a snazzy snore and an engaging theater experience. Linklater can thank science fiction author Philip K. Dick, whose novels often result in mind-bending movies, notably Blade Runner and Minority Report. A Scanner Darkly contains Dick's signature blend of paranoia and sci-fi satire in a plot never becomes completely focused yet is able to sustain interest in Linklater's technique.

The film is set seven years from now when a designer drug called Substance D has much of the populace hooked. Rotoscoping allows a vivid portrayal of the effects in the first scene, which introduces drug user Charles Freck (Rory Cochrane) as someone crawling with bugs that really aren't there. It also allows law enforcement use of "scramble suits" worn by undercover detectives, creating random, rapidly shifting combinations of multigender, multiracial physical traits impossible to identify.

One of the police officers wearing the suit is Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves), first seen delivering a canned condemnation of Substance D as a civic group's guest speaker. Bob doesn't buy into the words he is mentally prompted to say. We soon know why. Bob's assignment to infiltrate the drug underworld has addicted him to Substance D. He spends most of his time chasing scores with other junkies or listening to the ramblings of their altered consciousness.

The motormouths include James Barris (Robert Downey Jr.), a know-it-all who knows less as the drug kicks in. James regularly spars with Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson), who probably isn't very bright even when he's sober. A bit less talkative but still addicted is Donna Hawthorne (Winona Ryder), whom Bob is dating but all the guys have a crush on. Each is under some mysterious surveillance, even Bob. Could this be internal affairs checking on a troubled officer, or is Bob not really what he appears? A Scanner Darkly poses such questions but offers few clues until a late rush of exposition turns everything around in a barely satisfying manner.

Forget the plot holes and red herrings, the detours into meaningless conversations and head-scratching narrative. A Scanner Darkly is foremost a second experiment with a visual process that might be truly revolutionary. Rotoscoping renders a look that audaciously straddles the chasm between reality and fantasy. You haven't seen anything like it unless you wandered into Waking Life. Even so, you see it handled better here.

The best thing about the process is its preservation of the performances; it keeps these surreal characters more human than, say, the children of Monster House. Motion capture animation often reinvents the actors, such as Andy Serkis' Gollum/Smeagol in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Tom Hanks in The Polar Express. It seems more faked than it really is, diminishing the credit the performances deserve. I would venture to say that if Downey's excellent animated performance in A Scanner Darkly had been viewed three years ago, Serkis would have received that Oscar nomination he deserved.

Linklater's toying with rotoscoping probably isn't finished, but it becomes more confident and less showy as A Scanner Darkly progresses. Before long we forget these aren't traditional portrayals, while their off-kilter presentation fits Dick's circumstances better than flesh-and-blood actors might. Rotoscoping still carries its share of distractions; the intense shadowing of faces often resembles movable birth marks, and scramble suits are so hypnotic that you can miss a few lines of dialogue. Audience perception may someday catch up to Linklater's imagination. Then we'll have something marvelous to behold. B

- STEVE PERSALL, Times film critic