Movies about drug abuse are generally self-important, didactic and awful. From Reefer Madness in the 30s to Steven Soderbergh’s well-meaning but preachy Traffic in 2000, most drug movies are enough to make you kick your own television over and head straight to your nearest dealer.
Or, as A Scanner Darkly’s Bob Arctor succinctly puts it, “You know why I hate this shit? It’s because this is the reason people get on drugs in the first place. It’s all so disgusting.”
And this is why A Scanner Darkly is, along with Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, that most rare of beasts: a watchable, truthful drug movie.
It’s no coincidence that both Trainspotting and A Scanner Darkly are adapted from novels – it takes a novel writer’s depth and breadth of worldly experience to write about the subject of addiction while being mature and intelligent enough to understand the dual nature of taking drugs.
And just as Trainspotting honestly depicted the sweet highs and horrifying troughs of taking heroin, A Scanner Darkly depicts the life of a small group of amphetamine addicts with an unflinching respect for the truth – their path to oblivion is an often blissful one, which only makes its characters’ downward spiral all the more poignant.
A Scanner Darkly originates from the paranoid typewriter of Philip K. Dick, an author best known for his prodigious SF output. And while Darkly has, ostensibly, a sci-fi premise, its futuristic trappings are a gossamer thin wrapping – written after Dick’s enigmatic quasi-religious experience of 1974, which ultimately led to his VALIS series of books, A Scanner Darkly was originally intended to be a mainstream novel, before Dick’s publishers intervened and suggested he added a few more generic elements.
This explains, perhaps, why A Scanner Darkly makes for such an unexpected film – like Dick’s late books, it doesn’t sit easily in the genre of SF, with both Richard Linklater’s film and Dick’s novel using sci-fi trappings to tell a mostly autobiographical story of whacked-out stoners in the early 70s.
Linklater masterfully employs the same rotoscoping technique he used in Waking Life to create the remarkable visuals of A Scanner Darkly. And while animation may sound like an odd choice for what is essentially a dialogue-heavy drama with sci-fi overtones, the choice makes perfect sense once seen in context, lending the film an atmosphere that is simultaneously dream-like and hyperreal.
Keanu Reaves stars as Bob Arctor, an undercover cop working for a future law enforcement organisation so secretive that even its own employees aren’t allowed to know one another’s true identity. While at work, Bob wears a scramble suit – a bizarre outfit that disguises his appearance in a ‘vague blur’ of apparently random physical fragments – and goes by the assumed name of Fred.
With his psyche already teetering on the brink of collapse after repeated doses of the fictional drug Substance D, Bob is given the absurd task of covertly investigating himself, with sensors – the scanners of the title – placed all over his delapidated house and monitoring his every movement.
Gradually sinking into a mire of paranoia and bizarre waking dreams, Bob’s investigations and continued addiction lead him to a conclusion that is dark, shattering and inevitable.
Along the way, however, A Scanner Darkly revels in its own kind of bleak humour. Bob is surrounded by a group of characters even more drug-addled than he is, including the paranoid, insect-obsessed Freck (Rory Cochrane), the slyly psychotic Barris (Robert Downey, Jr., who clearly relishes the role), the hopelessly clumsy Ernie (Woody Harrelson) and twitchy love interest Donna (Winona Ryder).
Philip K. Dick’s dialogue has been lifted almost verbatim from his source novel, albeit with much of its 70s hippy slang excised, and the result is by turns surreal, funny and poetic. A scene in which Bob and his housemates discuss a mountain bike is perfectly shot and acted (“Let’s go rescue the orphan gears!”), while these moments of humour are contrasted by Bob’s quietly moving internal monologues.
Keanu Reeves may not be the finest actor of his generation – and there are times in A Scanner Darkly where he merely mumbles his way through his dialogue – but his delivery, as he describes the strange moment which marked the end of his quiet family life and the beginning of his addiction to Substance D, is note perfect.
Philip K. Dick made it clear in several interviews that writing A Scanner Darkly, with its events so closely mirroring those of his own life, was an intensely moving experience. Fittingly, Richard Linklater’s adaptation feels like a genuine labour of love, and A Scanner Darkly is arguably the most faithful of any film based on the author’s work, capturing the humour and philosophical underpinnings of Dick’s writing as no other film has achieved.
Blu-ray is the perfect format for A Scanner Darkly, and even after viewing it several times on DVD, watching the film in high definition is like seeing it for the first time. Every outline and curve is crisply defined, but its the vibrancy of Darkly’s colours which provide the greatest revelation, with rich tones and shimmering hues.
A brief but illuminating documentary explains how A Scanner Darkly’s animators took Linklater’s live-action footage and, in a painstaking process taking thousands of hours, traced every frame to create the film’s unique, hyperreal aesthetic.
The feature commentary is even better, featuring contributions from Isa Dick-Hackett, Philip K. Dick’s daughter, as well as director Richard Linklater, producer Tommy Pallotta and writer Jonathan Lethem, and provides further insight into how the film was made, plus some fascinating stories from Dick-Hackett about her late father’s eccentric lifestyle.