Most of the movies based on works by late sci-fi author Phillip K. Dick are loose adaptations, to say the least. In movies like Blade Runner and Minority Report, Hollywood writers have a bad habit of taking a key concept (and some character names) from one of Dick's stories and writing a totally new plot. Not so with Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly. Based on the 1977 novel of the same name, it tells the story of an undercover narcotics agent (Keanu Reeves) who reports anonymously to the police department under the code name “Fred”. Fred is assigned to track a known drug dealer, Bob Arctor, who trades in and is addicted to a new drug called Substance D. The catch? Fred's true identity (which he can't reveal to the police) is Arctor. Forced to narc on himself and his friends, Fred slowly begins to unravel as he walks the thin line between cop and criminal.
Well written and painstakingly faithful to the novel, Scanner is a thing of many faces: It's funny and frequently ironic, philosophical, and a psychological thriller, all in one. The supporting cast really drives the film – Rory Cochrane as the psychotic junkie Charles Freck, Woody Harrelson as the laid-back Ernie Luckman, Robert Downing Jr. as the mysterious, paranoid Jim Barris, and Winona Ryder as Bob's girlfriend, Donna Hawthorne. Interactions between these characters are hilarious, in an offbeat sort of way. Everyone gets their own great lines – Harrelson, for instance, with “What if they come in through the back door, or bathroom window, like in that infamous Beatles song?” (trust us, it makes sense in context). While these characters provide the movie's comic edge, Fred/Bob is a darker persona, trapped in a web of intrigue, surveillance, and addiction. In a particularly memorable monologue he muses about the “scanners”, cameras placed throughout his so that he can monitor his own behavior. “What does a scanner see?” wonders Fred, “Does it see into me? Into us? Clearly or darkly?” While he tries to convincingly “report” on himself and his friends, Bob is under constant scrutiny by police department psychiatrists, who are worried that his addiction to Substance D may be destroying his ability to function..
Of course, no discussion of A Scanner Darkly would be complete without a mention of the “rotoscoping” animation technique featured so prominently in the movie. Rotoscoping is an animation process achieved by filming live actors, then painting over each frame, manually, to give the movie a cartoonish feel. The usage of rotoscoping does a lot to immerse the viewer in the movie's murky, dystopic world, but more than that, it helps to drive the plot. A critical plot device in Scanner is the “scramble suit,” a full body suit that projects partial images of millions of different people onto the wearer and masks their voice, disguising their true identity. This suit is what allows Fred to report anonymously to his boss, Hank, and move around the police department. In one of the movie's stranger moments, Fred must interrogate an “informant” reporting false information about Arctor – who turns out to be none other than Jim Barris. It also keeps Fred in the dark about who he's really working for, something critical to the movie's shocking, conspiracy-laden climax.
A Scanner Darkly is one of the most unique, funny, and twisted movies of the past year. It's unfortunate that the DVD package is so minimal (it doesn't even have a booklet), but it's worth it to see a movie so well-written, acted, and produced. This movie is 100 minutes of mind-expanding bliss, and it's highly recommended. Go watch it now. Oh, and remember: it's not paranoia if they're really after you.