A Scanner Darkly (2006)

A Scanner Darkly first published by Film4

Film summary: Friends tune in and turn on themselves in this rotoscoped adaptation of the Philip K. Dick cult novel, directed by Richard Linklater.

Review: It is seven years from now, in Anaheim, California, and Charles Freck (Rory Cochrane) has a bug problem. They are everywhere – in his apartment, on his dog, and crawling all over his flesh. He heads off to show his friend James Barris (Robert Downey Jr) a particularly large specimen that he has trapped in a jar – but on the way, after experiencing a series of vivid hallucinations, Freck glances at the jar and realises that there is nothing in it.

So begins A Scanner Darkly, Richard Linklater’s lysergic adaptation of the 1977 novel by cult SF author (and notorious drug-user) Philip K. Dick. As with his theosophical headtrip Waking Life (2001), once again Linklater turns to interpolated rotoscoping, an animation method that digitally repaints conventionally filmed footage, in order to present visually a fluid continuum between wakefulness and dreams, reality and delusion – and the head-spinning result is the closest and most compelling Dickian adaptation to date.

“We are all way too close to this” comments Barris as his fellow users Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves), Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson) and Donna Hawthorne (Winona Ryder) attempt to determine whether or not his new bicycle is stolen. In their drug-addled confusion they are in no state to puzzle out anything, making Barris’ suggestion that they seek a more “objective viewpoint” seem eminently sensible – except that in the unstable world of A Scanner Darkly, where identities blur and realities shift and distort under the constant influence of mind-altering substances, there is little room for an objective viewpoint. 

Even the protagonist Bob Arctor, a deep-cover operative assigned by the County Drug Agency to infiltrate the circle of his user ‘friends’, has little grip on reality. For although in his efforts to follow the supply source of the new brain-splitting drug known as ‘Substance D’ he spends half his time at a ‘scanner’ console reviewing secret surveillance footage of himself and his companions engaged in hilariously clueless, endlessly circular conversations, his own heavy use of the drug makes him a most unreliable detective. With his true identity concealed from his Agency handler by a high-tech ‘scramble suit’, Arctor is soon ordered to investigate himself as the prime suspect in the Substance D supply chain – but instead of racing to cover his own tracks like the similarly compromised protagonists of No Way Out and Infernal Affairs, our ‘scrambled’ agent struggles even to remember that he and Arctor are the same person.

Towards the film’s grim finale, one character wonders whether anyone will ever truly know what Arctor has done, or whether he will be more than just “a footnote in a history book”. By the end, amidst a succession of reality-checking twists, most viewers too will be unsure what has ‘actually’ happened to Arctor – whether he is an agent pretending to be a “total dope fiend” or vice versa, and indeed whether his entire involvement with the Agency is for real or just the dissociative fantasy of a pharmaceutical burnout – but then, exactly like Dick’s novel, the film closes with a historical ‘footnote’ that contains within it the harrowing reality that the rest of the film has so carefully cloaked. For, tracing a path from manic loser comedy to devastating tragedy, A Scanner Darkly skilfully employs genre elements (chiefly the thriller and science fiction) as part of its own undercover disguise. These are (or at least may be) the wild hallucinogenic imaginings of Philip K. Dick himself as much as of his alter ego Arctor, both locked in a struggle to see clearly the irreparable damage done to themselves and others by long-term drug abuse.

Like Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, David Cronenberg’s The Naked Lunch, Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream and Jonas Åkerlund’s Spun all rolled into one dystopian paranoid thriller, A Scanner Darkly anatomises addiction in all its highs and lows, and offers a dignified elegy for its misguided casualties. Add to this the mind-bendingly intricate plotting, casting that cleverly exploits the various players’ drug-related rap sheets, inventively funny stoner dialogue, and a career-topping performance by Robert Downey Jr as the mercurial, menacing Barris, and you have a film which, like all classics (not to mention addictive substances), will leave viewers wanting to experience it over and over again.

Verdict: The best film of 2006 so far, A Scanner Darkly is a bad trip, but one well worth taking – just so long as you can keep your head straight for the duration and find your way back home afterwards.

© Anton Bitel