(Warner Bros.) “This is a world getting progressively worse, can we not agree on that? What's on the dessert menu?” This line from Richard Linklater's brilliant adaptation of Philip K. Dick's novel A Scanner Darkly encapsulates everything the story is about: strung-out people coping with an increasingly insane reality by doing what people have always done – wax philosophical and distract themselves by indulging their appetites. The sad, confused characters that populate this tale of near-future Los Angeles desperately want to understand what's happening in the larger scheme of things, but ultimately they can't help falling into addictive behaviors that destroy any chance of success.
When we talk about “the future,” what do we mean? Do we mean a shining citadel where technology has erased the troubles of our society and made our lives serenely comfortable? Or is it possible that the lies, hypocrisy, and exploitation inherent in the various cultures of the world will simply mutate into new forms, creating a future that's grim and petty, where truth is buried beneath more and more layers of deception?
We are already starting to see the future of A Scanner Darkly manifest itself in our daily lives. Recently, in an article for the Chicago Tribune, Rex Huppke wrote an obituary for “the death of facts.” According to Huppke, we have reached a place in our national and international discourse in which those in charge can fabricate outright lies where- and whenever they desire without damage to their careers or reputations. He quotes NYU professor Mary Poovey: "I think the thing Americans ought to miss most about facts is the lack of agreement that there are facts. This means we will never reach consensus about anything. Tax policies, presidential candidates. We'll never agree on anything."
This is a terrifying state of affairs in which the prevalence of uninformed opinion in mass media – what George Saunders called the Braindead Megaphone – has blinded us to any accurate perception of reality; and it's a state of affairs that's at the heart of A Scanner Darkly. As Bob Arctor, the protagonist of the film, says, “What does a scanner see? Into the head? Down into the heart? Does it see into me, into us? Clearly or darkly? I hope it sees clearly, because I can't any longer see into myself. I see only murk. I hope for everyone's sake the scanners do better. Because if the scanner sees only darkly, the way I do, then I'm cursed and cursed again. I'll only wind up dead this way, knowing very little, and getting that little fragment wrong too.”
The scanners he's referring to are the little cameras placed around his house in Anaheim, California. The reason they're there is that Arctor is supposedly an undercover narcotics agent spying on his friends' use of a highly dangerous drug called Substance D. If this sounds like a spoiler, rest assured that this information is revealed in the first scene of the film. The rest of the story calls into question Arctor's identity and his perception of what's actually happening. It plays with the themes of metaphysical uncertainty present in most of Philip Dick's work.
The film asks several questions. At what point does pretending to be a burnout junkie actually turn you into one? In the end, does it matter whose side you're on when the world has become so ruled by paranoia and suspicion? Can there be any kind of moral judgment in a culture where truth has been replaced by opinion, allowing any unscrupulous person to manipulate reality?
A Scanner Darkly was filmed in live action, then animated using the same interpolated rotoscope technique used in Linklater's Waking Life. The technique is perfect for this story, making reality itself appear malleable, and making the viewer feel like he or she is on drugs. There are exceptional performances from Robert Downey, Jr., Woody Harrelson, and Rory Cochrane as Arctor's drug friends; in the often hilarious discussions of trivial details, they capture the addict's obsession with the vagaries of perception, and with reality as seen through the distorted lens of the ego. The two leads, Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder, have in the past faced criticism for “vacant” performances; however, in this film, they seem well-suited to their roles, playing characters so far removed from themselves that they're almost no longer human.
A Scanner Darkly is one of Philip Dick's greatest literary achievements, helping to elevate him from mere author of sci-fi pulp to existential wizard on the level of Vonnegut and Hemingway. In the novel, he uses sci-fi conceits to examine the self and the impulse to escape the self through chemical experimentation. Linklater's achievement is that he has made at once the most faithful adaptation of a Dick novel and one of the most creatively orchestrated. This is a film destined to join the ranks of classic cult cinema, and one of the most harrowing examinations of the consequences we face when we let reality slip away from us.
For Fans Of: Blade Runner, The Million Dollar Hotel, We Shall All Be Healed, Requiem For a Dream, Mother Night, Waking Life
Why We Like It: unique visual style, captures the essence of Dick's existential meditation, incisively mirrors the state of our world