For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
1 Corinthians 13:12
Ladies and Gentlemen, this review has been certified as being SPOILER FREE for your reading pleasure. Thank-you.
A Scanner Darkly is the long awaited film based on the Philip K. Dick novel of the same name. Published in 1977, it is Dick's tribute to the friends that he 'lost along the way' to the drug abuse that was as prevalent in the sixties and seventies as it is now. Dick was himself a prolific drug user, and a suspected schizophrenic, both of which probably contributed greatly to the imagery and artistry of his novels. Of all his novels, A Scanner Darkly is the one that can be least identified as science fiction; this is because the core themes of the novel are a part of Dick's life story that he wrote as a semi-autobiographical prose, and subsequently dressed up for the sci-fi market by the addition of a couple of futuristic features. Dick spent most of 1970-1972 being heavily dependant on methamphetamine, eventually having to enter into a recovery program to get over his addiction. The book took two weeks to write, and then three years to re-write to turn it into what he viewed as being a sellable novel.
Everything is not going to be OK
A Scanner Darkly is the latest offering from director Richard Linklater, the man who brought us such cult classics as Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, School of Rock, and Waking Life. The story is set seven years from now in suburban Orange County, California. As with many of Dick's stories, A Scanner Darkly is based on the protagonist of the story experiencing a shifting between illusion and reality where perception is merely a product of your own brain space, and often has no correlation with actual events. Identity, even less so. In this instance, the protagonist is Agent Fred, also known as Robert 'Bob' Arctor (Keanu Reaves), an undercover narcotics agent trying to crack the ring of drug dealers who are selling a highly addictive drug, Substance D, to the populace. With 20% of the public now taking the drug, the authorities are desperate to both stop the supply at the source, and to put the dealers behind bars.
As Agent Fred, he wears a 'scramble suit' to protect his identity from both the real world and other members of the police department. Anonymity is the name of the game when it comes to undercover work – to the extreme where not only must the public not know his identity within the police force, but neither should anyone with whom he works (including his boss, Hank)... nor he theirs. But the safeguarding of his identity from the outside world and within his workplace to prevent corruption within the police leads to Agent Fred losing his own personal sense of identity, a situation that is not helped by his addiction to Substance D. You see his cover, Bob Arctor, is a Substance D junky. This is the role he assumes in order to keep climbing through the tiers of dealers until he can get a positive ID on someone worth arresting to cripple the supply of the drug to the area. And a role that he takes too far when he starts taking the drug in order to make his undercover identity more convincing in the circles in which he now finds himself.
Substance D (often referred to as 'Death' throughout the film) is the stuff of governmental nightmares; incredibly addictive, the initial euphoria that it produces eventually turns into a need to take the drug to function. In addition, it causes so much damage to the brain that the user starts to experience paranoia, hallucinations, and delusions that can become all-consuming. It also begins to gnaw away at the commissures of the brain, such as the corpus callosum. I suppose you want that in English, right? The commissures are the pathways that connect the two hemispheres of the brain, so that the left can consult the right (and vice versa.) Without them the hemispheres, each of which are specialised to perform different tasks, are unable to communicate and synchronise, resulting in split brain syndrome, where the hemispheres are competing for control of the body and the person. In combination with the damage to the hemispheres themselves, the Substance D abuser ends up with a brain that is fried and beyond salvage.
"What does a scanner see? Into the head? Down into the heart? Does it see into me? Into us? Clearly or darkly?"
His two lives are thrown together when, as Agent Fred, he is asked by his department to start investigating Bob Arctor for his possible involvement in the Substance D supply chain. Unable to reveal his true identity to his superiors, he does as he is asked. To assist him in his investigation of himself, they install 'scanners' throughout his house to record everything that occurs there, 24hrs a day. As he watches himself on the scanners, Agent Fred sees things about Bob Arctor that he doesn't remember happening. Meanwhile, Bob Arctor is trying to keep his growing need for Substance D in check while the strands of his existence are slowly coming undone around the edges.
Bob Arctor lives in a rundown house in the suburbs with his flatmates, the psychotic James Barris (Robert Downey Jr.) and the spaced out Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson). His love interest is Donna (Winona Ryder), who is undoubtedly his girl, except she won't let him touch her. Then, to finish this ragtag assortment of losers, there's Charles Freck (Rory Cochrane). All of them are Substance D abusers, though they are in varying stages of addiction. Donna likes her Substance D, but loves her cocaine, and would prefer that any day of the week. Meanwhile Freck is the most heavily addicted Substance D user of the group, whose delusions and hallucinations are constant and crippling. Despite this, he resists the advice to put himself into one of the rehab programmes offered by the New Path clinics that have sprung up to deal with the countless numbers of Substance D junkies who have reached burn-out.
[to Freck] "This is a world getting progressively worse. Can we not agree on that?"
[to waitress] "What's on the dessert menu?"
I cannot tell you how much I loved this film. It is without a doubt the best Philip K. Dick adaptation that we've seen since Blade Runner, and the only one that's remained true to the original novel's plot. The first thing that you have to realise is that there are no action sequences; no flying cars; no laser guns; no robots. What there is is a lot of dialogue; a lot of character interaction; a lot of dark humour; and a lot of twists and turns in the plot as the story gets deeper and deeper in to the realms of drug-induced paranoia.
The visual effects are like nothing I've ever seen before, though this isn't saying very much as I'm not the biggest movie buff in the world. Linklater uses rotoscoping, where live action film is painstakingly traced to produce animated footage (he had previously used this technique in Waking Life, but has perfected the technique for A Scanner Darkly), giving you the feeling of watching a graphic novel. In particular, the 'scramble suits', the disguise worn by the narcotic agents, are amazing to watch. They work by constantly flickering through various images of lots and lots of different people such that you are unable to discern the person who is wearing it. Even if you hate the rest of the film, you can't help but be impressed by the number of man-hours that must have gone into producing such a complex piece of animation.
As for the characters themselves... well, Linklater seems to have deliberately picked actors who are, in real life, known to have / have had drug problems to play the main characters. Robert Downey Jr. probably has the best part of all as the psychotically paranoid and dangerous Barris, a man with a tendency to loquaciousness, and whose instinct for self-preservation comes first and foremost, though he'd never pass over the opportunity to fuck-over a friend in need. Keanu Reeves is also a good choice to play Agent Fred / Bob Arctor; mostly because he looks so dopey and spaced out most of the time anyway, that he's thoroughly believable as a man confused by the constant false images and demons that Substance D is causing to dance through his synapses.
As I said before, this is not an action film. Everyone drives the cars that we drive, shoots the guns that we shoot, eats the food that we eat. The only futuristic components are the scrambler suits (which are pretty futuristic), and the Substance D. The eponymous scanners are the equivalent of the security video cameras that are now a part of our lives anyway, but back in the seventies when the original book was written were a very futuristic thought – and a symbol of the police state. The scary thing about watching this film is the realisation that I found the idea of the authorities covertly placing video monitoring devices in the residence of a suspected criminal to be normal; a sad statement of the times that we now live in. Thirty years ago, such a thing was thought to be tyrannical. Now it's just something that happens more times than we'd like, and the practice is mostly accepted as a necessary evil.
Watching the film, it's hard to say if Linklater is trying to put across an anti-drug message. I personally don't think this to be true; similar to the spirit in which Dick wrote his book, the film's stance on drug use is that it happens. People do it, and badness often comes from this, but I think the actual theme of the story that Linklater is trying to get across is the question of what consciousness is, and how it reacts with reality when it is screwed up by the loss of identity, compounded by the damage caused by psychoactive substances. What is real anymore? There is chance that you may leave the cinema not knowing what the hell just happened in the last 100 minutes. I spent the best part of half an hour trying to get my best friend up to speed with the film, but then, she's not really one for films with complicated plots.
The film finishes with Dick's afterword to the original novel, wherein he dedicates his work to the large numbers of people he knew who died, or suffered physical or mental damage because of their drug use. He lists his own name in there, next to 'pancreatic failure'.
"...some people who were punished entirely too much for what they did..."
— Philip K. Dick
Running time: 100 minutes
Written and directed by: Richard Linklater