REVIEW: A Scanner Darkly [2006]

“I saw death rising from the ground”

What if the government turned one of its own into that which it serves to rid society of? If it enlisted anonymous employees for a mission, while necessary, that called for them to turn their recruit into an addict? The only way to infiltrate an illegal operation is to send one of its own inside. One sacrifice needs to see darkly in order for humanity to one day be able to see clearly again. A Scanner Darkly is a dark and personal descent into hell. Set in a not-so-distant future, our players are constantly under surveillance in order to capture those who are corrupting the world with the drug Substance D. We are thrown into the underground to see first hand the destruction of humanity, one delusion at a time. Science fiction has never been better and a story by Philip K. Dick never adapted so intelligently.

I have seen many Dick adaptations to film over the years, the favorite being Ridley Scott’s artistic and intelligent Blade Runner. Not until now, however, have I really wanted to go straight to the bookstore to pick up his entire catalog of novels. Never having read his stories I wasn’t sure what his tone really was. Minority Report was a good film until the tacked on sappy ending that only Spielberg can do, and Paycheck was a dismal waste of time. But then you have the dark despair of Blade Runner and the corruption of Total Recall, two movies which succeed greatly in my mind. After watching Richard Linklater’s adaptation of Darkly, I have to believe the heavy, cynical outlook on life is what Dick does and have to wonder whether the two failures changed his stories to go mainstream (which wouldn’t surprise me in the least). His works need independent visionaries like Scott and Linklater to say screw the mainstream, we need this story to go out right.

We are introduced to Keanu Reeves character, after the credit sequence, and learn that he is a government agent working to stop the distribution of Substance D. Like the others in his job, he must wear a scramble suit to conceal his identity on the job. This suit makes it impossible to know who the agent really is. When off the clock, they actually are junkies themselves, infiltrated into the culture to play the addicts off each other and get a big arrest. Reeves is perfectly cast as a man of principles who has slowly gone off the deep end into psychosis. He recalls to himself the wife and children at home, while at the moment he is a low-life named Bob Arctor, living with his user friends/suspects. Only Keanu can pull off the heady aloofness needed when he is assigned by his boss to watch Arctor, (yes, himself), to see if he slips and can be arrested. His employers know he must be in that circle of people, but there is no way of knowing which one he is, making this seemingly ludicrous assignment possible.

While Keanu’s split personalities drive the plot, his friends make the ride enjoyable. Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, and Rory Cochrane are hilarious. The three are in a permanent state of delusion, leading to paranoid inferences and activities. No one besides Downey Jr. can stop on dime and go off into tangents and unintelligible brainstorms when provoked by his own thoughts. The rapport between this crew is amazing and they play off each other brilliantly. Even Winona Ryder does an admirable job as Arctor’s girl/dealer Donna. She plays a junkie on D, but with a heart. Her character allows us to see deep into Reeves’ character emotionally. A side effect of D for females is the shutdown of the sexdrive; the utter disgust at being touched affectionately. We are shown the feelings that Donna and Arctor have for each other that can never be fulfilled. Hopefully her shoplifting hiatus has come to a close and Ryder follows this comeback with more roles in the future.

The story runs at an exciting pace, keeping you on the edge of your seat to continue through and find out Bob Arctor’s fate. Will he be arrested although he is taking surveillance of himself? or will he be able to find a bigger fish to fry while making his cover and descent to hell mean something? The layers Linklater has sewn together here are all superimposed on each other to great effect. The language has many quotable passages that you can almost feel are Dick’s words, and for this I commend Linklater for the courage to stick to the real heart of the story. I almost don’t have to mention the rotoscoping effect used, similar to the director’s previous gem Waking Life. Without the freedom animation allows, the movie could not have been as successful as it is. I applaud all involved as this journey continues with its laughs and tears all culminating in the heartbreaking finale, that when looking back really is the only way it could have played out. Also, it was a very nice touch, before the credits, having Philip K. Dick’s memoriam for all his friends that had died or suffered immensely from the effects of drugs. A Scanner Darkly tries to give meaning to their descent and a glimmer of hope for the future to one day rid itself of the voluntary plague.

A Scanner Darkly 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

photography:
[1] Keanu Reeves as Bob Arctor in director Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly, based on the Philip K. Dick novel. A Warner Independent Pictures release. © 2005 Warner Bros. Entertainment.
[2] Robert Downey Jr. as Barris in director Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly, based on the Philip K. Dick novel. A Warner Independent Pictures release. © 2005 Warner Bros. Entertainment. All Rights Reserved.

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