Saturday, July 22, 2006

A Scanner Darkly

Last week, I saw A Scanner Darkly, which has all the elements of a great movie: it was directed by Richard Linklater; it stars Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, and Winona Ryder; it was based on a story by Philip K. Dick, and it's animated with Bob Sabiston's ultra-cool rotoscoping software. So why was the movie so relentlessly boring?

Well, let's examine these elements one by one, starting with the cast. Keanu Reeves was okay, but Robert Downey Jr. talked way too much without saying anything, Woody Harrelson apparently thought he was in a comedy, and Winona Ryder was good but there just wasn't enough of her. And to get an idea of the level of interaction between these four people, imagine you're watching an episode of Seinfeld, except the characters are neither funny nor interesting, even though they might think they are. Now imagine that episode lasts for two hours.

As for Richard Linklater and Philip K. Dick, I can't explain what happened here. As far as I know, Linklater has never made a bad movie until now. I don't know if I've seen everything he's done, but whatever I've seen I liked what a lot. And to my knowledge, no story by Philip K. Dick has ever been made into a particularly bad movie. Consider Blade Runner, Total Recall, and Minority Report. Sure, Paycheck had some pretty big plot holes and discrepancies, but at least it was fun to watch.

And the animation was a big disappointment as well. It's the same technique used in Linklater's Waking Life, but the overall result is much less compelling. In Waking Life, the animation served a purpose, and it was also more visually interesting. In A Scanner Darkly, it was just a gimmick -- perhaps nothing more than a way to lure the people who raved about Waking Life back into the theater. In Waking Life, the animation was kinetic and vibrant, with pulsating throbbing backgrounds, lending the appropriate air of surrealism to the movie. In A Scanner Darkly, the animation was dull and lifeless -- as a matter of fact, if your vision were bad enough and you were sitting far enough away from the screen, you probably wouldn't even be able to tell it was animation. So what was the point?

But lest I sound too critical, I think it's actually quite an accomplishment to take all the right ingredients and make something bad out of them. The last time something like that happened was when Charlie's Angels 2 was made. (Yes, I saw it, and I'm embarrassed to admit it, but at least I didn't pay to see it in a theater -- I waited until it went to cable.) It's hard to imagine that a movie starring four hot babes could be so awful, but you don't need to imagine it -- all you need to do is watch the movie. A photograph of Cameron Diaz, Lucy Liu, Drew Barrymore, and Demi Moore would have been infinitely more entertaining to look at, and it wouldn't have annoyed you with inane dialog and short-attention-span cinematography. In its defense, A Scanner Darkly was nowhere near as bad as Charlie's Angels 2, but since Charlie's Angels 2 was probably one of the worst movies in the entire history of motion pictures, that's not much of a defense.

I realize I'm making an unfair comparison, of course. Charlie's Angels 2 is an awful movie by any standards, while A Scanner Darkly is merely a disappointing one. To clarify the distinction, I would never even consider watching Charlie's Angels 2 again, but when A Scanner Darkly makes its way to cable, I'll probably give it another chance. Even though I'd rather watch a movie in a theater than on TV, the truth is that some movies are better on TV. That's because when you see them in a theater, you unconsciously compare them to other movies, but when you see them on TV, you unconsciously compare them to other TV shows. And since the average TV show is pretty bad, the movie ends up looking pretty good. That's just my theory, of course, but it seems to be true. We'll see in a year or so, whenever A Scanner Darkly comes to cable.