A Scanner Darkly: the War on Drugs in the near future

by Glen Baity

A mind-bending work of near-future science fiction, A Scanner Darkly comes from the imagination of celebrated paranoiac Philip K. Dick (author of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, popularly known as Blade Runner). Dick wrote his book in 1977, and though he was only giving his best guess as to how the War on Drugs would eventually shake out, it’s a testament to the story’s continued relevance that the 2006 film version doesn’t seem to have been updated at all.

The adaptation is the latest from director/screenwriter Richard Linklater, for my money one of the most insightful people working in the profession today, who brings his considerable talent to bear on this posthumous collaboration.

Taking place a noncommittal ‘“seven years from now,’” A Scanner Darkly revolves around players in an escalated California drug war. A new narcotic, ‘“Substance D,’” has ravaged the Golden State, ensnaring one in five left-coasters in its web of addiction and death. In response to rising demand, the Orange County Sheriff’s Office steps up its surveillance efforts on suspected users at the same time it rolls out its fierce new anti-drug campaign.

On the forefront of both endeavors is Detective Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves), a 37-year-old failed family man who by day spies on Substance D dens, via closed-circuit camera, from the comfort of his cubicle. By night he lives the life of a college sophomore, hanging out with his weirdo, D-addicted roommates (Robert Downey Jr. and Woody Harrelson) in a dingy bachelor pad while trying to advance his nascent relationship with girlfriend Donna (Winona Ryder).

His arrangement is complicated when he is ordered by a superior to effectively spy on himself, a task exacerbated by his own growing Substance D habit.

The drug and the story might both be fictional, but the effects of Substance D are sadly familiar in light of America’s present crystal meth epidemic: After the initial wave of euphoria, D causes nasty hallucinations and paranoia, leading to extensive brain damage and ultimately death.

Those who enjoyed Linklater’s brilliant Waking Life will already be familiar with Scanner’s captivating ‘“rotoscope’” visual style, in which animation is rendered over footage of live actors. That’s a deceptively simple explanation, and the effect is nearly impossible to describe. The characters’ movements and expressions look natural and fluid, but the animation accentuates all those small details that would go unnoticed without it. The result is a film you can’t pull your eyes away from, one that calls attention to the minutiae of everyday interaction, making even mundane moments into singular marvels.

Unlike the last Dick story adapted to the screen, 2002’s louder, faster and less compelling Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly finds suspense in the quiet moments, reveling in the mounting unease and disorientation of its characters as Arctor’s investigation moves forward. Reeves and Ryder both give solid performances, but the supporting roles by Downey Jr., Harrelson and the ever-twitchy Rory Cochrane (Slater from Dazed and Confused) provide both needed fun and added menace in this tense little mystery.

The questions mount as the story moves toward its conclusion: where does Substance D come from? Who benefits from its sale? What happens to those addicts who are arrested and never heard from again? And is it all just drug-induced paranoia?

This is a film about drugs, addiction and loss every bit as poignant as 2000’s Traffic, albeit less ambitious in scope and more conspiracy-minded in its execution. It’s funny and heartbreaking, and at times difficult to watch, but the visuals are so perfect it’s impossible to turn away.

What is most amazing about the film, however, is the way Linklater’s dialogue-heavy style fits it so perfectly. In his earlier films ‘— Dazed and Confused, Slacker, Before Sunrise and its sequel ‘— he showed how small, seemingly insignificant conversations and slight movements can convey immense depth. It’s an ethos perfectly suited for this piece of fiction in which characters are constantly saying things they don’t mean and rambling on in endless digressions. It somehow adds up to a cohesive whole, and that is Linklater’s gift. A Scanner Darkly won’t make a huge splash at the box office but will undoubtedly go down as a classic for fans of smart, compelling and socially relevant science fiction.

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