A Scanner Darkly (2006) / Animation-Sci Fi
MPAA Rated: R for drug content, sexual content, language, and a brief violent image
Running Time: 100 min.
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, Rory Cochrane, Winona Ryder, Angela Rawna
Director: Richard Linklater
Screenplay: Richard Linklater (based on the novel by Philip K. Dick)
Review published October 27, 2006
Esteemed science fiction author Philip K. Dick's semiautobiographical novel is finally given the big screen treatment after a few attempts (including early interest by Terry Gilliam), and in Richard Linklater's (Bad News Bears, Before Sunset) hands, it's inventive, arresting in its imagery, and thought provoking -- very much in keeping with the works of the cult author. The book is a cynical portrayal on the nature of drug abuse, as well as the duplicitous nature of the government regarding the illegality and rehabilitative treatment of offenders. Like many books on drugs during the era, especially in science fiction, the themes are sometimes hard to grasp, which is only appropriate in capturing the essence of the state of mind of the users of the hallucinogenic drugs, who are in a constant state of struggling with their own essence, induced by their own inability to perceive reality over that which is conjured up in their faulty minds.
In the film, Keanu Reeves (Constantine, Something's Gotta Give) plays the protagonist, Bob Arctor, an undercover police officer living in a home with three other drug users, although they don't know his true nature. His superior officer in the force doesn't know who he truly is either, as Bob wears a "scramble suit" for identity protection, which ultimately results in Bob having to monitor his own life as he becomes the prime suspect in an ongoing investigation to bust the criminals involved in the distribution of the hallucinogenic, and eventually maddening drug known as Substance D, or "Death" as some users call it. As Arctor examines his own life, he finds that the taking of Substance D in order to pose as an addict has made him an actual addict, and with the pressures involved at work, his consumption of the drug has increased, debilitating his ability to reason. The more sense he tries to extract from his life, the further he slips into confusion, but the case against himself still must go on.
Although the dated hippie dialogue and some of the references have been changed for easier consumption by today's audience, Richard Linklater's version is mostly faithful to the themes and events of the book. In order to capture the science fiction elements, as well as the trippy drug-induced visions, Linklater would adapt rotoscoping, i.e. painting (computer-enhanced here) over live action footage, to make it appear as an animated film, much as he did in his 2001 film, Waking Life. While the realistically-rendered animation is a bit disconcerting at first, as the drama begins to take hold, the technique eventually ceases to be a distraction, and actually enhances the story once certain elements are depicted, such as the constantly-shifting scramble suit and the Substance D hallucinations.
Linklater would cast two actors known almost as much in their involvement with the world of drugs as they are actors, Robert Downey Jr. (The Shaggy Dog, Good Night and Good Luck) and Woody Harrelson (A Prairie Home Companion, The Prize Winner of Defiance Ohio), a former drug addict and activist, respectively. Winona Ryder (Simone, Mr. Deeds) also became famous for her trouble with the law, and this film represents her first major work as an actress since the shoplifting incident in December, 2001. However, this isn't really a preachy, propagandized film about the absurdness of what we deem to be criminality and the state of the rehabilitative process so much as the despair felt by a whole subculture of addicts in their inability to function in "normal" lives, as well as the profit-driven action of rehab centers who aren't interested in educating potential users of drugs before they become addicts, as that would cut into their profit margins. In the case of the company represented in A Scanner Darkly, they might even be accused of "double dipping". The "double life" theme exists in nearly all characters and organizations in the film, from the undercover cops, the stool pigeons, the law enforcement organization, and the rehabilitation clinic -- everyone and everything tries in vain to do the right thing, but the seductive power of the drug corrupts all.
A Scanner Darkly will most likely appeal most to those who enjoy science fiction premises with more modern-day themes. It will also probably hit home with anyone who may have been, or still continue to be addicts, especially those who have felt what it is like to be on the fence between wanting to pull out of the lifestyle completely for fear they will be completely enveloped by it and lost forever. For other viewers, it might be a difficult film to grasp, especially with the unconventional visual style of the animation. As one might say regarding any Philip K. Dick novel, if you keep an open mind, you might find it a surprising, intellectually-engaging experience.
©2006 Vince Leo