A Scanner Darkly With Keanu Reeves and Woody Harrelson

A Scanner Darkly is set in Anaheim, a suburb of Orange County, California, seven years in the future. Surveillance is the order of the day, with scanners monitoring all phone calls to try and combat the latest terror sweeping the world: Substance D.

This highly-addictive drug has swept the world and claimed millions of addicts, many of whom turn to the pseudo-religious New Path to help them get clean. As one of the characters says in the film: “You’re either an addict, or you haven’t tried it yet”.

Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) is nursing a healthy Substance D addiction himself, but he’s desperately trying to keep it a secret – he’s an undercover narcotics cop, and dabbling in drugs is forbidden.

Narc cops in this world are all anonymous – Arctor is “Fred” to his colleagues, and they all wear full-body coveralls that change their appearance second by second, making sure they can blend anonymously in to the background – quite an amazing effect to watch.

Arctor lives with his two friends, an idiotic pothead Ernie (Woody Harrelson) and a hyper tech-freak Barris (Robert Downey Jr). They bum around together like The Three Stooges, interrupted occasionally by Arctor’s girlfriend Donna (Winona Ryder), a drug dealer who does so many drugs that she won’t let Arctor touch her.

Arctor’s precarious world get worse when he meets a new informant who has information on a suspected terrorist: Bob Arctor. Arctor cannot believe what he is hearing (he’s in his shape-shifting suit remember, so no-one knows who he is), but as the story progresses and he has to watch the footage from the cameras planted in his own house, he begins to doubt his own sanity.

Is he really who he thinks he is (take the “r” out of Arctor, maybe)? Has Substance D done something to his mind, or is he the subject of some sort of conspiracy? Who exactly are his friends? And what happens if the cops find out he is the same Arctor they are monitoring?

A Scanner Darkly makes use of a relatively new technological animation process called rotoscoping. Action is shot on digital film as normal, then animated to end up looking look like something of a cross between a comic book and cut-and-paste.

Director Richard Linklater first used this process in his long-winded treatise Waking Lives a few years back, and the technology has improved greatly since then; it’s more dense and rich. That said, TV commercials have used the technique already too, so it may be old hat soon

Linklater adapted the story from the book by sci-fi author Philip K Dick, whose other stories have been bought to the screen as Minority Report, Total Recall, Paycheck and most famously, Blade Runner. Apparently based on Dick’s own experiences with drugs, he felt it was his finest work.

The film feels longer than it is although the overall experience is a compelling and interesting one, especially if you are a science fiction fan. The animation does not distract the eye – it actually brings another element to the table – and the story, whilst being fairly standard sci-fi fare, holds together well.

There are good performances too, and whilst it’s not really Saturday night popcorn fare, it’s worth a look for those interested in something different.

A Scanner Darkly
Directed by Richard Linklater
Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder, Robert Downey Jr, Woody Harrelson
100 mins
Rated: R

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