Title: A Scanner Darkly
Genre: Animation, Crime, Drama
Play time: 1h 40min
Director: Richard Linklater
Screenwriters: Richard Linklater
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder, Robert Downey Jr.
The science-fiction elements of A Scanner Darkly are window dressing on a story that hardly needs to take place “7 years from now.” More than even most good sci-fi, the film is relevant now, directly, not even by way of allegory. If anyone doubted that Philip K. Dick was onto something with his creepy, paranoid stories, this film is a reminder that the man’s imagination wasn’t just a thing unto itself.
The film can be seen either as a remarkably comprehensive vision of the future or as a series of narrative feints. A description of the plot doesn’t give an accurate impression of what the film is “about”; nor does watching the first act, nor the first act and the second. What begins as a story about drugs soon turns into one about massive surveillance and later becomes something bigger still: a picture of a world so controlled, its denizens so wholly tamed into being economic instruments, that it resists easy dystopian characterization. The world of A Scanner Darkly seems far more ordinary and commonplace than something like, to give a well-known example, 1984‘s Oceania, but I am not sure which is more chilling.
We begin to get a sense of this universe through the eyes of a varied cast of characters, their motivations and identities shifting and uncertain. Is Barris (Robert Downey, Jr.) just a low-life slave to Substance D — a drug so potent and prevalent that “you’re either on it or you haven’t tried it” — or a government operative, or neither, or both? Perhaps just a wannabe? We quickly realize that Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) lives a second life as Agent Fred, a high-level narc, but to whom is his identity known, and what is he trying to accomplish? Then there’s Donna (Winona Ryder), who seems like little more than a miserable junkie, and if you believe that, I have some Substance D to sell you.
Much of it makes a sick sort of sense. I like the Agents, who wear constantly shifting suits that not only conceal their identities but make them indistinguishable from one another. I liked, too, that the surveillance they employ isn’t overwhelmingly futuristic: there is talk of someone having to go in and reload the tapes. The film’s attention to detail is exacting, down to the pop culture references that fill out its future world — apparently, Leonardo DiCaprio goes through an “Elvis stage.”
Is Richard Linklater’s adaptation a great movie? I think that it is not. Linklater busts out the rotoscoping and the Robert Downey, Jr., and seems too enamored with his film’s trippiness to give the story the treatment it deserves. The result is, foremost, fleeting and forgettable: if I did not have my notes to help me rewatch the film in my head, I would have been at a loss as I write this less than a week later.
But if the details of the plot wind up fuzzy and nearly irrelevant, Dick and Linklater’s paranoiac vision remains in the memory. Ultimately, A Scanner Darkly is not a film about drugs or surveillance, but one about control. Tyranny isn’t the only coercive form of government, or the only way millions of people can be put on a leash. I will say no more except to note that I have long been vaguely frightened by the fact that Phillip Morris manufactures cigarettes and also stop-smoking aids.