A Scanner Darkly is in theaters right now, and I checked it out last weekend. I thought it was a solid film, with an array of disparate elements brought together effectively. I was a little chagrined by its 61% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, so I took a look at the reviews to see where I differ from 40% of them.
Besides in the fact that I'm a sci-fi movie pushover.
Below are some of the comments I found. They represent a sampling of the criticisms about this movie... most were expecting something faster-paced and cleaner-cut. Some of the issues that arose were the inevitable criticisms of drug culture movies... people want the depictions to be more compelling, or less preachy, or both.
I think the core problem is that these reviews don't reflect the desire of this story to be literary, rather than filmic. Stories, especially Dick's stories, have advanced to a much subtler point of storytelling than mainstream film has attained, and usually this means they're much more introverted and reflective. Literary stories are generally drawn-out, emotionally subtle portraits of people interacting with a social environment, rather than event-driven jerks through a world of faceless adversaries (a.k.a. "extras"). And strangely enough, I think that's what Richard Linklater's version of "A Scanner Darkly" managed to achieve.
Here are three of the most common examples of negative reviews:
"The artiness gets in the way of thrilling plot twists; we're still trying to sort out images when we should be sorting out facts." - Michael Booth, Denver Post (who still manages to give credit to the idea that this was the point)
"Arctor's split-brained existence turns 'A Scanner Darkly' into a Möbius strip of bizarre, sometimes amusing psychological dilemmas, but it ultimately lacks any cohesive impact." - Jeff Shannon, Seattle Times
"But where the earlier film had the luxury of abandoning plot for a more free-form structure, Scanner is stuck between experimentation and a narrative that never gets a chance to move." - Chris Vognar, guidelive.com (also says that ASD was 'dour' compared with Minority Report)
I think this happens a lot: in criticizing this movie, these comments actually cite the characteristics that make it cool. Booth alludes to the fact that this film is atmospheric, without a bunch of Encyclopedia Brown-style hints dropped. Vognar is complaining about the fact that this story has to wade through confused everyday-life scenarios in order to get to its plot points. These are things that aren't allowed in sci-fi and action films. The opponent is expected, and required, to be identifiable, and the sequence of steps needs to lead to a resolution.
But what this movie managed to show, for people who felt like waiting for it, was the way an environment loses its immediacy in the face of addiction and authority. That's why it started with so many orbiting conversations... the ennui of a home life dogged with addiction, the mind-warping alienation of working for a faceless authority... these things feed into Bob Archter's complex throughout the movie. Finally, at the end of the film, they collapse on him. It's not a violent climax, or a sudden salvation... it's the end-point of being caught between two forces, both of which pull you away from yourself. A key aspect of that alienation is the hazy, disconnected thread that links elements in this movie without really demanding your attention.
The treatment of drugs was an important point in A Scanner Darkly, and it caused a lot of the critical backlash. For instance:
"Though it gets around to addressing all of Dick's pessimistic ideas concerning the cyclical nature of addiction and the erosion of individual privacy, the pic arguably misses the boat by not linking its themes more explicitly to the political realities of the present, particularly when issues of unlawful surveillance have rarely been more relevant. Technological advances aside, this feels very much like a film that could have been made in 1977." - Justin Chang, Variety.com
and a similar name, but a directly opposed criticism:
"Unfortunately, as imaginative and eclectic as its aesthetic sheen is, 'A Scanner Darkly' is emotionally stolid and, in the final scenes, so preachy in its anti-drug stance that it might as well have had the financial support of D.A.R.E. during its production." - Dustin Putman, themovieboy.com
It seems to me that Justin, from Variety.com, was looking for a message about drugs, which he didn't get so much. Drugs were an ambient force in this movie, hanging over everything like smoke, but they weren't the kick in the face that they were in Requiem for a Dream. Dustin, the second critic, wanted a more realistic portrayal of drugs, something to humanize them and the personalities of their abusers. However, this film wasn't about humanity in its multi-faceted brilliance... it was about an evasive epicenter of humanity, getting lost in the haze of self-denial (the job) and self-indulgence (the drugs).
Ultimately, this movie captures some literary elements that almost always get lost on the way to film. The ambient effects of environment and influence, and the disconnected forces that seem to ripple through reality... ESPECIALLY through a semi-conscious reality... are at work here. It's notable that this is one of the only movies, aside from Blade Runner, that's really paced like a Phillip K. Dick story, with the gravitating uncertainty of life on a speculative frontier.
I think this guy gets it the best:
"Richard Linklater sticks to the narrative flow of Philip K. Dick’s novel without embellishing it with current sociopolitical realities that the book foreshadowed. In so doing, Linklater contains the author’s enigmatic work as it pinpoints all-consuming aspects of our modern existence--the pervasive use of drugs and surveillance to stifle freedom of thought and action." - Cole Smithy