`Scanner' has only the look of greatness

review B


With everything this film has going for it - humor, intelligence and a splendid ensemble - Richard Linklater's nightmare drug movie, A Scanner Darkly, should be continually compelling. But it loses its fizz after a strong series of pops. Instead of a moviemaking vision, it merely has a look: an unsettling, changeable new form of animated live action. And, instead of a lucid, original take on wigged-out junkies and the government that spies on and manipulates them, it slavishly follows Philip K. Dick's 1977 novel of the same name. For decades, the book's biggest fans thought it unfilmable. Linklater, though phenomenally talented (as he proved in Before Sunset), just can't lick it. A Scanner Darkly proves frustrating even when it's spectacular.

Like Ron Howard with The Da Vinci Code - though with far better source material, higher ambitions and greater results - Linklater makes a misguided stab at rigorous fidelity to the novel, though he can't generate momentum or suspense from the extraordinary, multileveled muck of Dick's visionary fiction. In Dick's dystopia, the U.S. government devises surveillance and entrapment techniques that rot the mind and corrupt the soul as much as Substance D, a drug that spreads like kudzu - it's grown, not cooked in a lab - and has the power to split or forever alter the human brain. (The government has a hand in the harvesting of Substance D, too.) Dick's A Scanner Darkly isn't a thriller, exactly. It's the sort of sardonic speculative fiction that beckons you into the mind of its creator. And, despite lightning flashes of hilarity, it's a hermetic and forbidding place.

A Scanner Darkly (Fox Searchlight) Starring Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder and Rory Cochrane. Directed by Richard Linklater. Rated R. Time 100 minutes.

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