I recently stumbled upon the madness that is cultural outpour via Nerve.com, a decidedly counterculture forum. I particularly enjoy some of their deeper delving into insanity through experimentation with over consuming various things, whether they be legal or illegal. However, I as a cinephile and part-time film critic was particularly intrigued, and, subsequently, enraged by their various "ranked" listings, where they take it upon themselves to put things like director's films in chronological order. It was one particular post titled Philip K. Dick Adaptations from Worst to Best that caught my attention. I am no scholar of Dick's work and have not seen a considerable amount of the films mentioned, however, I have attested to my love of Blade Runner and quickly assumed that it would be this film that would easily steal the number one spot on the list...this was not the case. The folks at Nerve.com went with A Scanner Darkly, a film I was familiar with, but had only seen clips of up until that point. I was perplexed and decidedly upset by the choice, feeling as though the perfect Blade Runner had no business in any spot but first. However, I knew that to truly affirm this statement I would need to watch A Scanner Darkly in its entirety and really synthesize it as a film before making a definitive statement. So upon watching it I can say this, Blade Runner is still a considerably better film, but damn if A Scanner Darkly is not a menacing, dystopic piece of cinema that is deserved of high, high praise. I am not entirely familiar with the book on which this is based, but looked it up and discovered it to be written in 1977, which is baffling, especially since watching it now, some seven years after its filmic release, I cannot help but consider how both prescient and ahead of its time the text really was and still is, particularly in its consideration of the maddening effects of drug culture on identity, self-respect and interactions between various persons consuming such psychologically altering substances. Of course, I am aware that some of these reactions are a result of Richard Linklater's adaptation and filming, particularly his use of rotoscoping, to give it an otherworldly feel, while still touching dangerously close to reality, in fact, if one blurs or clouds their vision during the viewing, it suddenly becomes all too real and incredibly disconcerting. The implication are heavy in this film and its stylized nature certainly attracts viewers, the message brilliant and while again not Blade Runner, certainly exists within the higher tiers of science fiction filmmaking.
A Scanner Darkly centers on a post-drug war America that finds itself in a heavily Orwellian state, one where phone calls are traced and video recordings invade even the most intimate of actions. However, despite these intrusive technologies, drugs, nonetheless, manage to intrude into society, via various dealers and drug circles. One drug, in particular, Substance D proves debilatating in its psychotic alterations, leading heavy users to suffer from split brain psychosis and intense and visceral paranoia. As such the police force for Orange County invests in methods to destroy the trafficking of the drugs, using agent Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) to infiltrate a high-powered Substance D ring, involving the anarchistic, yet maddeningly militaristic Barris (Robert Downey, Jr.) and his stoner-like pal Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson). Perhaps the groups most troublesome individual is Charles Freck (Rory Cochrane) whose addiction to Substance D, has all but entirely destroyed his mind. As Arctor's involvement with the group heightens, so does his burgeoning friendship with the group, particularly one with sexual implications with a come-and-go guest in the house Donna (Winona Ryder). It is during a day at work that Arctor is informed by his superior Hank, who, like Arctor wears a "scramble suit" which is a constantly shifting identity suit that makes the identification of their creator's form so rare that it only occurs about one in every million manifestations. Needless to say, the double duty of attempting to continue to mask his presence as Arctor while also getting "closer" to breaking up the drug ring proves far too much to handle, only worsened by his continual use of Substance D, within the confines of his work. He begins to become the subject of tests by the police psychiatrists, only to be told that his brain has now split and is beginning to work against itself. It is one night, after a failed attempt at romance with Donna that Arctor's insanity splits and he finds himself seeing persons present in situations they are not present, which results in him being entirely pulled of the case where he was to investigate himself. It is during his last "talk" with Hank that he realizes his boss may well be Donna undercover, leading to the final break from sanity, leading to his being placed in rehabilitation. It is during his rehabilitation that he is sent to a farm to aid in "growing items," which is intercut with a scene of Donna, known, out of cover as Audrey, talking with a superior about his possible memories of a drug, which will allow him to hopefully undercover the truth that the farm using addicts from Substance D, is, in fact, the same place growing and harvesting the chemical.
The film is absolutely baffling and nearly incomprehensible on first examination, after all, it is Dick's very moving text that is both a cautionary tale against drug use, as well a work created to pay homage to his friends whose lives were invariably damaged by the drugs of the era. It is perhaps this framework that makes the narrative so complex, because Linklater's adaptation makes it clear that it neither condemns nor praises those involved in drug use. In fact, it shows the layers of dependency and paranoia that emerge as a result of such engagements. For example, Barris is always spouting ideas about being watched by the government and being steps away from getting narc'ed out. This would be illogical in most film settings, but this is the entire narrative of the film, Barris is continually in contact with a friend who is essentially awaiting a moment to bust him for his use and distribution of Substance D. Furthermore, Arctor's misery seems to stem from his concern that he is alienated from the society around him, believing that the performances he puts on are meaningless, because what results is his failure to earnestly connect with any one on an earnest level. The irony extends itself when one considers that, as part of his job, he must wear a suit that continually alters his identity, so much so that he is never himself, but on the rarest of occasions. Tragedy, emerges then when he does seem to have a moment of genuine connection between another person only to be denied that pleasure, when she claims to be too involved in drugs, but what proves to be the likely alternative is that she knows engaging with him could destroy the larger plan to exploit him to attack the drug producers down the line. In fact, Arctor is even told that he is insane, leading to his questioning every action, even the moment when he does realize that Hank, is indeed Audrey/Donna he is so unstable that to question it would be to affirm his own fall into psychological instability. The result, of all this, I would suggest is not to condemn the drug users for their eventual fall out, but instead, to critique the nature of drug trafficking, both in its indifference to those it hurts, as well as the way in which the government uses it to their advantage in one moment, only to turn their heads and condemn it in another breath.
Key Scene: The moment when Arctor catches a glimpse of Donna in the scramble suit is so built up and delivered with such succinct certainty that it is hard not to be completely blown away by its occurrence.
The bluray is phenomenal. Show Dick and Linklater some love and grab a copy.