Though I’m not usually a fan of drug movies, I was curious to see Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly, because it was based on a novel by sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick. Dick is the author of the books that were later turned into the movies Blade Runner and Total Recall. A Scanner Darkly also employs a unique animation style called Rotoscope. Basically the movie is shot like a regular movie and then animated so that everything still looks kind of real. The animation gives the film a graphic novel kind of look. The story is a bit confusing, because in the drug addled world of A Scanner Darkly it’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s not.
Keanu Reeves plays Robert Arctor, also known as Agent Fred, an undercover spy, assigned to infiltrate a drug operation. In the not so distant future a new drug, Substance D, has become the most popular and most dangerous drug around. Substance D is a highly addictive narcotic that causes extreme paranoia and hallucinations. Arctor immerses himself with a group of friends, James (Robert Downey Jr.), Ernie (Woody Harrelson), and Charles (Rory Cochrane). It is not long before Arctor is so entrenched in the drug culture he begins to lose his own identity. He too becomes addicted to Substance D and is unable to distinguish between his undercover character and his real life.
A Scanner Darkly, at its core, is about identity. Arctor has lost himself in an effort to make society better by fighting the war on drugs. The spies are so undercover in their mission they don’t even know each other. When interacting at their headquarters they wear Scramble Suits. The suits constantly rotate voice, faces, skin color, gender, and clothing, making it impossible to know who they really are. Personal relationships for the spies are nearly impossible. Arctor once had a wife and children, but they have disappeared from his life. It could be they left because the pressure of his undercover work tore them apart, or it’s possible Arctor became so lost in his character he forgot about them. Arctor has a new girlfriend (Winona Ryder), but he can’t seem to make things work with her either. James, Ernie, and Charles have also lost themselves. They spend their time in drug addled confusion, and are constantly paranoid they have been infiltrated by the government spies.