Like the dysfunctional brains of its characters, A Scanner Darkly is sometimes confused and adrift. The movie, adapted by Richard Linklater from Philip K. Dick's novel, follows a handful of Substance D users. Substance D, a.k.a. "Death" is a pharmaceutical nightmare, a feel-good drug that eventually produces hallucinations, brain damage and serious cognitive dysfunction. In the not too distant future, in a fascist America not too different from present-day America, Substance D users are everywhere, including the police department.
Officer Fred, an undercover narc assigned to infiltrate a Substance D distribution network, is also a user. Under the "scramble suit" that obscures his identity from everyone, including his fellow officers, he's Bob Arctor, who may or may not be involved in selling D. Fred is assigned to keep an eye on Bob -- he (Fred) watches surveillance video of himself (Bob) on a bank of monitors in a generic, flourescent-lit office. Confusing, to be sure, and Bob/Fred isn't really sure who he is or what he's doing a lot of the time.
A Scanner Darkly employs the same interpolated rotoscoping animation technique that Linklater used in Waking Life. It involves tracing over live action images, and results in a wiggly, liqueous, surreal but real look that suits this kind of trippy headgame story. Rotoscoping preserves the visual aspect, the movements and facial expressions, of an actor's performance, while also allowing for interesting visual alterations and enhancements of the characters and backgrounds. The characters in A Scanner Darkly often look like they're floating slightly off the ground, and there's a kind of 3D effect, where people both blend into and stand out from their surroundings. It's a perfect visual metaphor for characters coming unmoored from their lives and the world.
Beneath the animation, with its chunky slabs of paint-by-numbers color and Play-Doh-y squishiness, are terrific performances, particularly by Robert Downey, Jr. (no stranger to drug abuse problems himself) as the shifty James Barris, and Woody Harrelson (himself a happy hemp activist) as Ernie Luckman. Barris and Luckman live in Bob's house and spend most of their days in frequently hilarious flights of drug-induced paranoia, able to leap from small inconveniences to vast conspiracies in a single bound. Freck (Rory Cochrane) is an occasional hanger-on, an ultra-paranoid D user who experiences continuous and horrifying hallucinations. Bob (Keanu Reeves) struggles to keep the two halves of his brain, and his identity, together. His brain is literally splitting in two, he's told, the two halves involved in a hemispheric battle for dominance. But maybe what he's been told isn't true. The scramble suit he wears creates a constantly shifting external identity, a vague, blurry jigsaw puzzle of faces and bodies that never form a cohesive whole, just as Bob and Fred share the same body but seem to remain vague and blurry to each other. Reeves' vocal mannerisms are reminiscent of *The Matrix*'s Agent Smith, although his confusing experiences are more like Neo's, which adds another intriguing twist to his character.
Dick purportedly wrote A Scanner Darkly after his own nightmarish experience with drug abuse and rehab in the 70s. What, precisely, the story is about tends to be obscure, and there's a drifting looseness to the film's narrative that lets it spin in multiple directions at once: Fascist states that monitor our every move, turning us all into narcs ready to turn on each other, and eventually turn on ourselves; A cautionary tale about the horrors of drug addiction and the pharmaceutical-industrial complex; The soul-dullification and mass delusion of the suburban lifestyle; Cognitive dissonance and the confusing nature of "reality." There's a psychedelic grab-bag of ideas contained in A Scanner Darkly, and the movie is at its best when it drifts with the different currents and undercurrents, and gets temporarily caught in swirling eddies before being spit back into the random, meandering flow. A Scanner Darkly is most interesting when it makes the least sense, and least interesting when it does make sense, at the end, when the tangled strands of the story are pulled together into a tight explanatory twist.