July 5, 2006 > A Scanner Darkly
A Scanner Darkly
Directed by Richard Linklater
by Jeremy Inman
Imagine a future where everything you do is recorded, where your every movement can be tracked, and faceless members of a faceless organization determine whether or not you spend the rest of your life in prison. Now imagine that you've been drafted into this organization for the sole purpose of spying on your unsuspecting friends, and strangely... on yourself.
That's the basic plot of Richard Linklater's psychedelic trip into the near future, an adaptation of Philip K. Dick's A Scanner Darkly. Scanner gives audiences a glimpse into the frighteningly believable future of seven years from now. Bob Arctor's job is to secretly monitor the activities of his closest friends - a group of users addicted to a mysterious, paranoia-inducing drug called Substance D. However, Bob has a bit of a dilemma: the organization he works for doesn't know who he is. As a matter of fact, no one who works for the organization has an "official" identity. They all wear something called a scramble suit, which hides their identities and masks their voices, making it impossible to determine who anyone really is.
Bob works under the codename "Fred." As a result, Fred is assigned to survey Arctor, who is believed to be one of the largest D dealers and a very dangerous man. Arctor must constantly record and catalogue not only the actions of his friends, but his own actions as well. Arctor soon spirals into a web of paranoia as the side effects of Substance D, which he is forced to take as a result of his profession, start to fragment his mind, pitting the hemispheres of his brain against each another.
Scanner is not an easy film to follow. It's a convoluted tangle of conspiracy theories, drug-induced rants, and psychedelic tangents. This, however, is intended, as Scanner is meant to convey a sense of paranoia and a loss of identity within the inner-workings of an oppressive, but unseen, government structure.
The real draw to Scanner is its off-kilter sense of humor and amazingly fluid animation style. In a process called interpolated-rotoscoping, filmmakers shoot the film like a regular live action movie and then use computers to "paint" over each frame in post production. This creates a unique and visually stimulating artistic presentation last seen in Linklater's film, Waking Life.
It's not so much the plot that pulls viewers into Scanner, but its characters. Driven by knockout performances from Keanu Reeves as Arctor, Woody Harrelson, Robert Downy Jr. and Rory Cochrane as his drug addicted friends, and Winona Ryder as his girlfriend, the film delves disturbingly deep into the dark reaches of drug-induced paranoia and betrayal.
While A Scanner Darkly is intended to be science fiction, this aspect of the film takes second seat to the drug-related aspect of the plot. Some truly entertaining performances from everyone involved, especially Robert Downy Jr., who steals the show as Arctor's dubious pal James Barris, maintain a helter-skelter pace and sharp sense of humor while accurately introducing the viewer to the world these characters live in without audience use of the drugs themselves. Needless to say, it's a real trip.