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It is seven years from now, in Anaheim, California, and Charles Freck (Cochrane) has a bug problem. They are everywhere - in his apartment, on his dog, and crawling all over his flesh. He heads off to see his friend James Barris (Downey Jr), and shows him a particularly large specimen that he has trapped in a jar. But on the way, after experiencing a series of vivid hallucinations, Freck glances at the jar and realises that there is nothing in it.
So begins A Scanner Darkly, Richard Linklater's lysergic adaptation of the 1977 novel by cult sci-fi author (and notorious drug-user) Philip K Dick. As with Linklater's theosophical headtrip Waking Life (2001), once again the director turns to 'interpolated rotoscoping', an animation method that digitally repaints conventionally filmed footage, in order to present a fluid continuum between wakefulness and dreams, reality and delusion. The head-spinning result is the closest and most compelling Dick adaptation to date.
"We are all way too close to this," comments Barris as his fellow drug users Bob Arctor (Reeves), Ernie Luckman (Harrelson) and Donna Hawthorne (Ryder) attempt to determine whether or not his new bicycle is stolen. In their narcotic confusion they are in no state to puzzle out anything, making Barris's suggestion that they seek a more "objective viewpoint" seem eminently sensible - except that in the unstable world of A Scanner Darkly, where identities blur and realities shift and distort under the constant influence of mind-altering substances, there are no objective viewpoints.
Even the protagonist Bob Arctor (Reeves), a deep-cover operative assigned by the County Drug Agency to infiltrate the circle of his user 'friends', has little grip on reality. In his efforts to follow the supply source of the new brain-splitting drug known as 'Substance D' he spends half his time at a 'scanner' console reviewing secret surveillance footage of himself and his companions engaged in hilariously clueless, endlessly circular conversations - but his own heavy use of the drug makes him a most unreliable detective."
With his true identity concealed from his Agency handler by a high-tech 'scramble suit', Arctor is soon ordered to investigate himself as the prime suspect in the Substance D supply chain - but instead of racing to cover his own tracks like the similarly compromised protagonists of No Way Out and Infernal Affairs, our 'scrambled' agent struggles even to remember that he and Arctor are the same person.
Towards the film's grim finale, one character wonders whether anyone will ever truly know what Arctor has done, or whether he will be more than just "a footnote in a history book". By the end, amidst a succession of reality-checking twists, most viewers too will be unsure what has 'actually' happened to Arctor - whether he is an agent pretending to be a "total dope fiend" or vice versa, and indeed whether his entire involvement with the Agency is for real or just the dissociative fantasy of a pharmaceutical burnout.
Then, exactly like Dick's novel, the film closes with a historical 'footnote' that contains within it the harrowing reality that the rest of the film has so carefully cloaked. Tracing a path from manic loser comedy to devastating tragedy, A Scanner Darkly skillfully employs genre elements (chiefly the thriller and science fiction) as part of its own undercover disguise. These are (or at least may be) the wild hallucinogenic imaginings of Philip K Dick himself as much as of his alter ego Arctor, both locked in a struggle to see clearly the irreparable damage done to themselves and others by long-term drug abuse.
Like Trainspotting, The Naked Lunch, Requiem For A Dream and Jonas Åkerlund's Spun all rolled into one dystopian paranoid thriller, A Scanner Darkly tracks addiction in all its highs and lows, and offers a dignified elegy for its misguided casualties. Add to this the mind-bendingly intricate plotting, casting that cleverly exploits the various players' drug-related rap sheets, inventively funny stoner dialogue, and a career-topping performance by Robert Downey Jr as the mercurial, menacing Barris, and you have a film which, like all classics (not to mention addictive substances), will leave viewers wanting to experience it over and over again.