Science fiction and fantasy                                            

A Scanner Darkly

by Richard Linklater

A Scanner Darkly poster  
A Scanner Darkly is set 7 years in the future, in an America which is fighting a losing battle against drugs. People are hooked on Substance D, a powerfully addictive mind-altering narcotic. Keanu Reeves plays a police undercover drugs operative known to his co-workers as Fred.

Fred wears a scramble-suit when he's amongst his colleagues, a whole body disguise consisting of constantly fluctuating face-shapes and clothing designed to make him completely unrecognisable. Only a select few know of his real identity.

The whole of A Scanner Darkly is filmed in a cartoonish yet photorealistic visual style that takes some getting used to. The colours are saturated and posterised, so that the movie has a comic-book appearance. It gives the film a gaudy feel that makes it slightly easier to imagine the drug-induced haze many of the characters are experiencing.

Fred is actually Bob Arctor, who lives with a couple of junkie friends and his girlfriend Donna Hawthorne, who has a phobia of physical contact. He ends up bugging his own house in an attempt to root out which of the occupants is involved in a deeper conspiracy. The police suspect that someone living with him, perhaps even Arctor himself, has contacts higher up the supply chain, and they want to know more.

"I saw death rising from the earth, from the ground itself, in one blue field."

- Fred
However, one look at Arctor's friends and it's clear that none of them are even capable of organising a picnic, never mind anything more sinister. They are hopelessly paranoid, jumping at every shadow, and barely lucid. Their rambling conversations revolve around bicycle gear conspiracies and other inane twaddle. The actors' performances are spot on, portraying the ineptitude, paranoia and lack of co-ordination typical of drug addicts with great accuracy. However, if you've ever had the misfortune to witness a group of drug fiends in conversation, you will know it's one of the most mind-numbing experiences there is. This makes for a very dull movie.

In order to maintain his cover, Arctor begins to use Substance D. He has regular tests at work to assess the state of his mind, but he begins to suspect that he is losing his grip on reality. Although A Scanner Darkly is quite freaky in places, the plot moves forward very slowly. There's a distinct lack of adrenaline-fuelled action, or even any variety at all in the plodding pace this story takes. It also lacks a big love story, or any awe-inspiring effects. It's a story that documents the sad decline of a man into addiction, but for a relatively short movie it seems to take a long time to get to the point.

There are a couple of good twists at the end that make sense of the plot and go some way to redeeming this film. But on the whole it's a dreary and meandering movie with little to recommend it.

Film Details

Year: 2006

Categories: Films

  Science fiction

Classification: 15

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2 star rating

Review © Ros Jackson