A Scanner Darkly

4 stars


8th September 2006

Hollywood loves Dick, and that's a fact. Philip K. Dick, that is: whenever the powers that be require a sound sci-fi brain scratcher, they turn to the pages of special K. The man behind Total Recall, Minority Report and the more than slightly less impressive Paycheck, Phil is the go-to guy for short tales of paranoia, future dystopia and drug abuse, with A Scanner Darkly representing only his second full novel to be adapted into a movie (the first being "Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?" which resulted in the mighty Blade Runner). At the helm is another Dick, Richard Linklater, one of the slipperiest directors working today, a man who simply refuses to be pigeonholed, but who is as yet unproven in the sci-fi genre.

Finally, Dick gets a film worthy of his talent. Unlike Blade Runner, which removed so many parts of the novel's original plot as to be almost unrecognisable, A Scanner Darkly is pure Dick. It's very possibly the best sci-fi movie since the Golden Summer of 1982, even if the actual sci-fi element is (in practical terms) almost invisible, like Dick it explores the world of the hypothetical as if it were an alien landscape.

We're first introduced to undercover government agent Fred (Reeves) as he speaks to a boardroom full of executives about the dangers of Substance D, the drug of choice for the junkie of tomorrow. Hiding behind his multi-faced Scramble Suit to protect his identity, Agent Fred reads an uninspiring speech on the perils of drug abuse, although the manner in which he delivers it suggests that he doesn't completely agree; a user himself, Fred is far from being awarded Employee of the Month. Out of his suit, Fred is everyman Bob Arctor, and when he's spied talking to his dealer girlfriend Donna (Ryder) over the phone, surveillance is organised for an agent to infiltrate his group of friends and weed out any potential addicts and abusers. Selected for the task is one Agent Fred, his superiors apparently unaware that Fred and Bob are one and the same. In a world where identity is blurred and the conspiracy nuts are more often proved right than wrong, Bob begins to question his sanity as his world falls apart at the seams.

Just because you're paranoid doesn't meant they're not out to get you. The narrative twists and turns through a series of scenes in which very little actually changes and the story barely advances. The point of this journey is not to arrive, but to enjoy the sights on the window on the road to nowhere. And, like many Hollywood movies, you suddenly realise that you've been stung with a devious plan far bigger than all you have seen.

Keanu plays his usual typecast role (a confused stoner hunk), whilst the ensemble cast of Woody Harrelson and Robert Downey also play to type; Woody Harrelson as Owen Wilson's Pothead Dad, and Robert Downey Jr. as a babbling mess of nerves. Large portions of the film appear to do little more than merely record their paranoid and drugged up logic; these are people who have taken far more than a joint too far. Downey in particular demonstrates why he's the most under-rated actor in the world - I could easily watch an entire film of his character giving a monologue and enjoy it more than any other film; he's a verbose walking Encyclopaedia Paranoia topped off with an imagination only matched in grandeur by Dick's. In a just world, Downey would carry off a trophy in the Spring.

Unlike every other Dick adaptation, A Scanner Darkly is scant on chases and flying astroships, choosing to explore the uncharted regions of the mind and leaving the explosions to the more cerebrally challenged. The rotoscope animation technique is consistently breathtaking and genuinely stylish throughout, fitting with the themes of drug-addled confusion and identity perfectly. As Arctor stares at his superior's Scramble Suit, taking dozens and dozens of different identities within a matter of seconds, it's not difficult to see how even the most sound minds can go off the rails. Is it style over substance? Surely identity could be protected just as easily with a Tescos carrier bag over the head? Occasionally you might get the feeling you're being hypnotised, but nonetheless it does have the stones to tackle themes and issues that are all too often swept under the multiplex carpet. In short, A Scanner Darkly is a must for fans of films made by people who think, for people who think, and that's as rare a commodity as you'll find these days.

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