A Scanner Darkly - 2006 (Richard Linklater)
Just a quick note. I intended this to be a short ‘review’ of the movie, but I ended up making references to other works of Philip K. Dick. If you haven’t seen Blade Runner and intend to, there’s a bit of spoiling going on. Not so much with Minority Report, but you could make a case for that as well. Oh, and I guess it spoils a bit of A Scanner Darkly as well, but what do you expect?
Also, I intend to write as many reviews as I can from now on. This is the first review I've done in a while, but I'm pretty happy with it. I've re-read it and noticed a bunch of places where I could tighten up some of the wording, and it could use a lot more structure overall, but as a mix of general viewing thoughts and critical analysis, I don't think it's a bad start.
There are many films I’ve claimed to have “always wanted to see, but never gotten around to it”. A Scanner Darkly has been on this list for some time now, though I’d assumed it was older than it actually is. I thought this was made sometime in the 90s, prior to Keanu Reeves’ super-stardom following The Matrix, and back when Robert Downey Jr. was at the height of his infamy. Turns out it was released the year after I finished college, so I would have been 18. I guess that gives me a possible 6 years of awareness of the movie, which is a decent amount of time. But I digress. I’ve seen the film now, and I have thoughts to share about it.
A Scanner Darkly is based on the Philip K. Dick novel of the same name, which I have not read. I intend to though, just as I read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? after watching Blade Runner several times. The film is set in near future America, in a time when a deadly new drug known as “Substance D” has flooded the country, and is effectively degrading the entire society. Police and other law enforcement agencies have failed to stem the flow of Substance D, and a new task-force of undercover agents has been created to investigate the source of the drug, and put an end to its circulation. Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) is one such agent, assigned to pursue the supply chain through a low-level dealer Donna Hawthorne (Winona Rider) with whom he develops a romantic attachment. Arctor shares a run-down house with two other junkies, James Barris (Robert Downey Jr.) and Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson). They are also visited frequently by Charles Freck (Rory Cochrane), a Substance D addict who has had more severe reactions to the drug than any of his friends, including vivid hallucinations, and intense paranoia.
While the premise for the film is quite simple, it’s the world-building of Philip K. Dick, and the unique visual style that really bring this film to life. As expected of a Philip K. Dick story, the setting for the film goes beyond simply being abstractly futuristic. Philip K. Dick’s stories (at least the ones I’ve seen or read) are often set in a realistic, dystopian future, often created as the result of a distinct catalyst. In Blade Runner it was advent of robotic human replicants. In Minority Report, it's the identification of pre-cognition in humans. In A Scanner Darkly, it is of course the proliferation of Substance D.
The reaction of law enforcement agencies to these catalysts is also a common theme, with narratives often focusing particular members of these agencies. It’s also interesting to observe how these agents are often undone by a particular aspect of their own job. Rick Deckard, an agent employed to ‘retire’ rogue replicants begins to question his own humanity by the end of Blade Runner. In Minority Report, John Anderton questions the validity of his very reason for being, and the nature of destiny when he is implicated in a murder by a technology he helped to create. So too in A Scanner Darkly, Bob Arctor begins to lose his grip on reality as he leads two phony and conflicting lives, one as a drug addict, and the other as the agent assigned to investigate his alternate persona. As an addict, Arctor wears the fact of an addict. However as an agent, he wears many and wears none. A technology called a “scramble suit” changes the physical appearance of Arctor multiple times per second, so that no one in the agency knows who each other are. This switching between opposing and artificial identities, coupled with the abuse of Substance D, see’s Arctor slowly lose his sense of what is real, as well as his own identity.
It would be remiss of me not to mention the unique visual style of A Scanner Darkly. The film uses a technique known as interpolated rotor-scoping, which gives the film a hand-drawn, cel-shaded look. Anyone who has played the video game Borderlands would be very familiar with this style. This technique is extremely effective for a number of reasons. Most prominently, it simultaneously decreases the required budget of the film, and increases the director’s opportunities for including scenes which may have otherwise been unbelievable or prohibitively expensive. Two such examples are given very early in the film. The opening scene with Freck experiencing a common side effect of drug abuse - the sensation of bugs crawling over your skin - is arguably made possible due to the this artistic technique. In normal live action, the bugs would need to be inserted with realistic computer graphics, or simply inferred by the audience as Freck scratched at his skin frantically. Instead, the bugs could simply be modelled at a very basic level, and drawn in. The second example is the Scramble Suit, which I have no doubt would have been prohibitively expensive. The suit is integral to the plot of the film, and simply had to be believable for the film to succeed. Using this rotor-scoping technique is an absolutely perfect solution to this problem, but goes beyond simply resolving technical problems. It gives the film a distinct, other-worldy feel, and allows for seamless transitions between reality, and Arctor’s drug-induced hallucinations.
Although the film is fascinating for the reasons I’ve described and more, there does appear to be something missing that would elevate it beyond the four stars I feel obliged to give it, because apparently we all have to stamp a definitive rating on our media. If I were to attempt to put my finger on exactly what it is, I would suggest the following. The film could easily be turned into a cat and mouse film, where both the cat and mouse are the same person. Bob Arctor would need to race against time to uncover the source of Substance D, while keeping two identities secret, and managing the adverse affects of his drug abuse. That story would be a pretty complex narrative, but it would follow a traditional framework, building up the suspense to a thrilling conclusion. In fact, the description I just gave could indeed be used as a description of the film, as everything I said is true. However, often in films, the narrative is not simply about the events that take place in the story, but the perspective from which they take place. This is absolutely true in the case of A Scanner Darkly, as the film is actually telling a powerful story about the harmful effects of substance abuse. In the end, what the film loses in pure entertainment value, it more than makes up for with it’s message. A message made all the more profound once you learn that the story is actually semi-autobiographical, and very close to the author’s heart.