Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Winona Ryder
Based on Philip K. Dick's novel, A Scanner Darkly
is a story about an undercover police officer who gets so
far in deep he loses his grasp on what is real and what isn't.
Dick, who had written the stories that became Blade Runner
and Minority Report, presents a twisting story that
is a strong portrayal of the effects that drug addiction can
The story opens with the undercover NARC Bob Arctor (Keanu
Reeves) giving a speech inside of a scrambler suit, which
keeps his identity hidden from the rest of the world. When
at work, he remains inside the suit so that his boss and coworkers
have no idea who he is. The reasoning behind this is that
he's actually undercover and in charge of viewing his own
surveillance. Of himself. Yes, you read that correctly. Arctor
is actually put in charge of trying to gather information
on the drug dealing activities of himself.
As Bob gets deeper into his role, he finds himself having
a hard time distinguishing reality from the delusions that
Substance D is showing him. In fact, reality shifts in and
out at will, and the paranoia he feels isn't helped much by
either his job, his friends or his distant girlfriend-slash-drug
dealer. Towards the end, things are so scrambled that any
resolution could happen and the one that finally does arrive
is largely unexpected. One of the ironies of the story is
that the drug addled main characters are often paranoid, but
not without good reason as the world they live is intensely
observed by the police. It easily raises the adage "You're
not paranoid if they really are out to get you." Also at play
is a positioning of the story which asks the question whether
Arctor is a NARC pretending to be an addict or an addict pretending
to be a NARC.
While much maligned, Keanu is excellent in the role, playing
the numbed NARC turned drug addict. While Keanu plays the
straight main character to the "T", he's accented by his slacker,
weirdo friends, played by Woody Harrelson, Rory Cochrane and
Robert Downey Jr. Downey's role as the overly intelligent
and often maniacal Barris is so well delivered that I think
it would be a shame if he didn't get a nod from the academy.
Downy rattles off his commentary with such a machine-gun pace
that you know he's coming from a place he's been before.
One could not go on about A Scanner Darkly without
commenting on the modern rotoscoping technique used to animate
the film. While there are some elements left untouched, large
portions of the movie are animated in a cel-shaded manner,
allowing for the drug-induced delusions to play out quite
conveniently. On top of people changing in appearance before
our eyes, this technique allows background elements to float
and shift freely, creating a drug-addled vision for the viewer.
It's a fine technique and works well with the story.
A Scanner Darkly is a heady story that is driven
by lots of strong conversation-driven events. Those expecting
an action flick may just be bored by about halfway through
the movie. The script is meaty and the movie is as much about
the experience and the twists that the story takes as it as
about the final resolution. If you can endure a strong spoken
story, you'll find this film quite an enjoyable experience.