Published Jul 01, 2006The first thing you notice is the look. Before marvelling at, or even being engaged by, the narrative of Richard Linklaters adaptation of this novella from acclaimed sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick, its images are what capture attention. Taking the rotoscoping technique he first employed in his philosophically meandering low budget experiment Waking Life, writer/director Linklater (School of Rock, Dazed & Confused) imbues this tale of psychotropic drugs with a jittery, paranoid and entirely trippy look.
In a near-future Orange County, Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) is an undercover narcotics agent investigating friends suspected of dealing: Jim Barris (Robert Downey Jr.), Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson) and prime suspect Donna Hawthorne (Winona Ryder). To accomplish this, Bob wears a "scramble suit, a form of camouflage that tricks people into seeing an amalgam of everyman (woman and child) in an evolving visual stew. (The animated scramble suit, a living painting/funhouse mirror and drug trip on its own is the films most spectacular visual trick.) Arctor and his buddies are all deep into Substance D, a perception-altering hallucinogen; as an undercover agent, Arctor becomes both hunter and hunted as he tries to unravel whats actually real.
In narrative terms, A Scanner Darkly makes up for its penchant for wordy speechifying in the first half by distracting its audience with the visual feast at hand; in its second half, as Bob Arctors journey into his own paranoid delusions (in which he starts suspecting and investigating himself) ramps up, the film has a little trouble sustaining suspense on its somewhat flimsy premises.
Linklaters adaptation draws some fairly obvious Orwellian parallels between the wars on drugs and terror and the corporate symbiosis of complicity and addiction. But ironically, hidden amongst this dark and somewhat foreboding dystopia is one hell of a visual trip. (Warner)