Apparently Philip K. Dick is a very adaptable author, because many classic science fiction films are based on his work – most notably Total Recall and Blade Runner. What’s interesting about the push to change Dick’s works into films is that many of his stories and novels seem to consider the same things – namely a future filled with technology that unchecked can lead to evil abuse of power and lost individuality.
The most recent addition to the stable of Dick adaptations, A Scanner Darkly, hits on all of these main points. Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves), an undercover police officer, is fighting a drug epidemic of “substance-D” (D for death). Over the course of his undercover work, Reeves’ character becomes completely embroiled and addicted to his life as a substance-D user. In fact, the life of drug use is his “real” life because his identity as a police officer remains cloaked behind specially designed suits that shift constantly – he is simply known as Fred when on official police business. In the end his addiction causes him to go insane and that drives him into the arms of a large corporation – a corporation that make its money from rehabilitation services needed in the wake of substance-D.
The story itself is fairly standard. There is no truly new narrative at work in A Scanner Darkly and because of this it lacks real depth. The film’s pacing is slow, but not entirely unwatchable, although there are no sequences of intense action or visual interest. The film is modified with a method called roto-scoping, which was previously utilized in Waking Life (another of director Linklater’s films). The effect is hard to describe, but it is almost a flattening of color in cells, or animation that is based strictly on already filmed footage. This technique adds to the disjointed nature of the movie, the various characters are all high and the world around them seems appropriately unstable.
Most of Scanner‘s performances are good. Reeves as the out-of-touch, reality-challenged protagonist works well. Something about his detached voice and demeanor just lend themselves perfectly to the character he plays. The supporting cast is solid, with the strongest performance by Robert Downey Jr. as a paranoid drug addict who can talk his way out of anything.
A Scanner Darkly works on the level of producing a very real and visceral experience of drug addiction, because that’s really what it’s about. Dick originally wrote the novel as a kind of retelling of his interactions with drugs, and at the end the movie lists his many friends who were negatively affected by drug experimentation. The detachment, paranoia and general insanity of a world of chemically-induced psychosis is presented in an interesting way through the use of roto-scoping. Visually, the film is intriguing. The plot and story, however, fail to deliver anything that set it apart from previous movies, leaving a movie that is unbalanced and asking for more.