A Scanner Darkly (15)



SciFi (2006)
100mins US

Starring: Robert Downey Jr, Woody Harrelson, Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder
Director: Richard Linklater
Listings: London | Rest of UK and Ireland

In a violent and lawless future, drug abuse is rife among the human population. One of the most popular narcotics is Substance D, a powerful hallucinogenic which has the side effect of creating split personalities in the user. Undercover police officer Fred (Reeves) is hooked on the illegal drug, which has created a rather unfortunate alter ego - a notorious drug dealer known only as Bob. When Fred and his police colleagues orchestrate an elaborate sting to capture Bob and his cronies, the shocking truth finally emerges.

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LondonNet Film Review

A Scanner Darkly
The future is anything but bright in Richard Linklater's animated dystopian fantasy...

Robert Downey Jr. as Barris, Keanu Reeves as Arctor and Woody Harrelson as Luckman star in Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures. Copyright: © Warner Bros. Pictures 2006.Adapted from the mind-bending novel by Philip K. Dick, A Scanner Darkly imagines a haunting vision of the near future, in which the war on terrorism has been supplanted by the war on drug abuse.

Linklater replicates the look and feel of a graphic novel through an advanced form of the interpolated rotoscoping animation, which was first devised for his 2001 film Waking Life.

Having shot and edited a live action version of the film on digital video, the writer-director delivered A Scanner Darkly to a 30-strong team of animators, who painstakingly painted over the top of each frame to create the distinctive trippy visuals. The 15 months required to create 100 minutes of footage were well spent, delivering a feast for the senses, even though the predominantly earthy colour palette tends to make surfaces, especially human faces, seem flat and lifeless.

Seven years hence, America is no longer the land of the free and the home of the brave, but the land of the chemically induced and the home of confused. The human population's desperate attempts to escape reality via widely available narcotics have created a deeply unhappy, self-destructive Generation Excess in the vice-like grip of paranoia. The simple act of getting through the day, with sanity intact, is a major achievement. One of the most popular narcotics is Substance D, a powerful hallucinogen which has the unfortunate side effect of creating split personalities in the user.

Undercover police officer Fred (Keanu Reeves) is one of the foot soldiers trying to eradicate the drug from Suburban Orange Country, California. Using the false identity of Bob Arctor, Fred is ordered to spy on Jim Barris (Robert Downey Jr), Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson), Donna Hawthorne (Winona Ryder) and Charles Freck (Rory Cochrane), gathering intelligence about their drug consumption and dealing.


Observations are sifted and decoded at police headquarters, where undercover agents wear so-called scramble suits to conceal their true identities. Unfortunately, Fred is hooked on the illegal drug and he's rapidly losing the ability to distinguish between his real and imaginary selves. When the police intensify their surveillance, Fred… or is it Bob embarks on an absurd journey into a Big Brother state gone mad.

A Scanner Darkly is slavishly faithful to Dick's source text and Linklater is in no hurry to make sense of the characters' delusional ramblings. Animators have conjured some truly incredible sequences, like Charles scratching furiously as he hallucinates hundreds of lice crawling over his body, or Jim's amusing metamorphosis into a giant cockroach.

Even more impressive are the scramble suits worn by the undercover cops. These body suits shimmer with the characteristics of millions of different people, constantly changing in appearance, thereby cloaking the true identity of the wearer. Yet, for all its visual invention, A Scanner Darkly is a hallucinogenic triumph of style over (illegal) substance. In terms of narrative, the film disappears up its own proverbial narrative, lost in a deluge of verbal diarrhoea that will probably leaving you scratching your head or, even worse, nursing a headache. If Linklater's intention was to create a film that comes close to evoking the woozy, spaced out head-trip experienced by the characters in Dick's book, he succeeds.

Sophie Abell


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