More noise than signal

A Scanner Darkly

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

This adaptation sees Keanu Reeves take the role of Bob Arctor, a man with many faces. At least, when he’s wearing his anonymising Scramble Suit to report to his similarly anonymous superior officers in his role as an undercover cop. He’s currently investigating the sourcing and suppliers of a drug that his gripped this dystopian future, Substance D, or Death. While one assumes there’s some pleasure to be taken from D, we only ever seem to see the damage that it wreaks. For an example, let’s look at Rory Cochrane’s Charles Freck, who’s busy hallucinating immense quantities of aphids and obsessively cleaning himself off them, and from a lot of what’s said, he’s still one of the better off.

With, we’re told, something like 20% of the American populace wired to the eyeballs on the substance, the closest thing there is to help for these people is a chain of rehab centres run by the New Path, who try and clean these people up for a return to society, even if the left and right hemispheres of their brains are no longer talking to each other.

Arctor is currently working on Winona Ryder’s Donna, his sort-of-girlfriend and small time dealer, with the hope of working his way up the chain. His once pleasant home is now occupied not by his long-left wife and children, but Robert Downey Jr.’s paranoid, hyperactive, would-be scientist know all James Barris, and Woody Harrelson’s much more laid back Ernie Luckman, a seemingly nice guy who’s a lot closer to the “stoner washout” stereotype than perhaps is comfortable.

Things become more confusing for Arctor when, as a result of a tip-off from Barris, he is ordered to start paying particular attention to this suspicious “Bob Arctor” character. When the futurepolice say anonymous, they mean anonymous. So, he manoeuvres everyone out of the house to allow for a fancy surveillance setup to be installed, to better investigate himself.

There is, of course, any number of undercover investigators that wind up identifying more with the people they are investigating than their colleagues or superiors. Unfortunately for Arctor, the dissociative disorders that the substance D causes makes it rather difficult for Arctor to identify with anyone, particularly when he starts watching sequences in the recordings that he has no memory of.

And so it goes, with Arctor becoming more paranoid and less capable until his superiors decide he’s been getting a little too close to the addicts that he’s investigating in both personal and addiction terms, and is best off at a New Path facility. Which, turns out to have been Donna’s plan all along, suspecting that New Path are also the main producers of Substance D, but are protected by the government and have developed great techniques for rooting out undercover cops. Having a true addict be shipped off to the place seems to be the only way to get in, and they just hope there’s enough of Bob Arctor left at the end of New Path’s psychological breakdown to gather and return some evidence to them.

It is a desperate plan, and frankly not one that holds up to a lot of scrutiny, particularly on repeat viewing. Thankfully, while the narrative is engaging, it’s not really the main peg that the film hangs its hat on.

In terms of fidelity, certainly up until Bob is shipped off to the New Path centre, Linklater adheres pretty close to the spirit of the source material. Not that it’s a literal translation, as we don’t have five hours to spend and at any length you’d still never get Dick’s wonderfully evocative descriptions of mental states and the like. From memory, it’s a little easygoing on some of the extreme New Path procedures that should perhaps be in the final act, but I suspect that Linklater was trying to get through that section as quickly at possible – on a number of levels it feels very much like this film ends just after it’s revealed that Donna is the superior officer Arctor has been reporting to, and the remainder of the narrative is perhaps given short shrift.

But such is the nature of successful adaptations, and I’d argue that this is the most successful of the Phillip K. Dick adaptations, at least in the sense of being adaptations. We’ve already described our affection for Blade Runner and Total Recall in prior podcasts, but there’s not, in truth, much of the original work in those films. This captures more of Dick’s excellent original novel, and is all the richer for it.

One aspect of the film that could see it written off as a gimmick was rotoscoping the actors to make this an animated film. I hope that bringing this up so late in the review belays that somewhat, as I don’t think it’s all that integral to the strengths of the film. However, it has created a truly distinctive looking film, and enabled some scenes of hallucinations and the Scramble Suit effect that I doubt the sub-ten million dollar budget could hope to achieve as live action. It looks terrific, and just as lovely today as it was ten years ago.

The performances are all top class, Reeves, someone who always takes more stick than deserved, gives a layered and convincing central performance and the supporting cast are all top notch – perhaps overshadowed by Downey Jr.’s hyperactivity which may, perhaps, be drawing from his own experience, not that I’m saying anything that could sued. Your honour.

As an introduction into Dick’s recurring themes of identity and his personal experiences with drugs, this really would be an excellent starting point and a good guide into whether or not you’ll appreciate his novels. There’s not a great deal more an adaptation can do, really. It’s an excellent film, and one of my favourites.