Film Review: A Scanner Darkly

Archive Film Review:
A Scanner Darkly-R
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Rory Cochrane
Directed by: Richard Linklater

Drug Addiction, Darkly

(This review was published in the Indiana Daily Student July 13, 2006)

Science fiction author Philip K. Dick once said that, “Drug misuse is not a disease, it is a decision, like the decision to step out in front of a moving car. You would call that not a disease but an error of judgment.”

The author, best known for his sci-fi short stories of the 60s and 70s, wrote his novel, “A Scanner Darkly,” as an allegory for the troubling epidemic of drug abuse that was plaguing not only those around him, but also himself (he was a speed junkie) during the early ’70s. The story is science fiction, relying heavily on futuristic technological advancements, but only on its surface. Richard Linklater’s “A Scanner Darkly” marks the eighth film adaptation of a Dick story and is on par with previous successful films such as “Blade Runner” and “Minority Report.”

“A Scanner Darkly” is set seven years in the future in Southern California. Keanu Reeves (playing, well, the best Keanu Reeves he can) stars as Bob Arctor, a police officer who goes deep undercover to infiltrate a growing underground drug cartel of a new radically powerful hallucinatory drug called Substance D. The trouble is Arctor is so far involved that his mind starts to play tricks on him and he begins to question his true identity. On the one hand he is Arctor, the normal guy who spends his days getting high with his friends and constructing mind puzzles that tread the waters of paranoia. On the other hand he is a police officer who goes by the code name Fred. As the plot thickens Arctor begins to unfold the intricate inner workings of the cartel while also coming to grips with his shattered mental state.

“A Scanner Darkly” is complicated and plays tricks on the audience much like the mind-bending drugs play tricks on the main characters. Reeves is decent as Arctor, however, the true shining performances come from Robert Downey Jr. (“Chaplin”), Woody Harrelson (“Natural Born Killers”) and the horribly underappreciated Rory Cochrane (“Dazed and Confused’s” Slater) who all play Arctor’s Substance D fiend friends. Some of the best scenes of the film occur around Arctor’s run-down Cali bungalow where the friends get high, ponder meaningless notions about the current state of the world they live in and create elaborate, paranoia fueled puzzles and conspiracy theories.

Director/screenwriter Richard Linklater delivers a wonderfully written script and the film’s unique style of rotoscoping visual animation (a technique that Linklater helped create with his film “Waking Life”) never distracts the viewer and is a perfect counterpart to the Dick’s often-surreal story.

“A Scanner Darkly” deals with drug abuse and addiction in the same vein as David Cronenberg’s film adaptation of William S. Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch,” using bits of comedy and surrealism to show the chaotic nature of mind altering drugs. The film is often very funny and visually the equivalent of eye candy, however, there is an underlying level of depressing realization that Substance D or any drug for that matter can truly have devastating effects on the human psyche.