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Director: Richard Linklater
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Seven years from now, around one quarter of the American population is dependent on a powerful and highly addictive psychoactive drug known as Substance D. ‘Agent Fred’ (Keanu Reeves), an undercover police officer assigned to monitor a household of drug users, is also Bob Arctor, a member of that household whose girlfriend and dealer, Donna (Winona Ryder), is suspected of having links to the uppermost source of Substance D. So far, so simple, right? Er…
Robert Linklater’s much-anticipated adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel is, unsurprisingly, a little trippy in places. After all, we are being drawn into the world of a man whose consciousness is literally splitting in two and who is becoming increasingly incapable of even recognising the correlation between his two parallel identities. However, despite the often hilarious scenes featuring the paranoia, psychobabble and stoner logic of Arctor’s associates Freck, Luckman and Barris (Rory Cochrane, Woody Harrelson and a scene-stealing Robert Downey Jr.), it would be sheer folly to dismiss this film as simply being for and about the chemically-enhanced. If I were to liken it to anything it would be more classic film noir than Cheech and Chong, with prominent themes of corruption and betrayal and Arctor as the fundamentally-flawed hero trying to get to grips with something he can’t fully understand while being led to his ultimate demise by a femme fatale (although there is a rather clever twist to this that is pretty unexpected unless, unlike me, you’ve actually read the novel).
Much has been made of the fact that this film is rotoscoped, the live action film painstakingly traced by animators to give it a grown-up cartoon effect. This device certainly pays off and adds to the whole atmosphere of A Scanner Darkly, contributing to the sense of detachment and feeling that nothing is quite real or as it seems. It’s also strangely satisfying seeing the cast of familiar names in a new way and, on a more prosaic level, simplifies the inclusion of Dick’s ‘scramble suits,’ something that would have been incredibly difficult to create without big-budget CG effects.
Keanu Reeves is one of those actors that people seem to just love to criticise but, having seen this film, I find it hard to imagine Arctor being played by anyone else. Reeves’ characteristic lazy and laconic style fits the role perfectly and he can certainly do blank and bemused very well, making him ideal as an unwitting cog in a machine. The casting of actors who, in the majority of cases, have had highly-publicised dalliances with illegal substances is a very knowing move and slightly adds to the air of despair and inevitability that pervades a lot of the piece. That said, this film is not a depressing didactic on the dangers of drug abuse. A Scanner Darkly is rich, intelligent and compelling while also being entertaining and thus can be appreciated on a variety of levels.Colin Le Sueur