I should warn you now that you probably aren’t going to like A Scanner Darkly. Don’t let the B- grade I’m giving it fool you, I’ve spoken to four other people who saw it and they all left unimpressed. If four out of five people don’t like something you can probably infer the fifth person doesn’t speak for the masses, that he’s not all tuned in. The unfortunate part is that in this case the non-tuned person is me.
A Scanner Darkly will be labeled boring, weird, overdone, and not effective. It will make nothing at the box office; especially given its opening slot against the monster second Pirates of the Caribbean. It’s a film that’s been delayed and now sent out to die, and in truth at times it is all the things people hate about it. But it’s also something else if you want to look under the blanket a bit, let’s let those other suckers stay at the surface as we dive right in to find the good.
Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) is the protagonist of the film and he’s an undercover agent in a futuristic government agency determined to crack down on a drug called Substance D. A full 20 percent of the population is hooked on the junk and Arctor is staking out a group of users and abusers. The rub is that Artor himself may be the focus of his own probe; as the agency has no idea who its agents are because they all wear scramble suits to guarantee anonymity. The scramble suits are quite trippy as an effect; people switch faces and clothes on screen every microsecond. The whole film is done with animation laid over live shots which adds a feeling of paranoia and desperation to the whole environment. This style of animation also frees the film to make damn near anything work on screen, from delusions of bugs (as a drug symptom) to the aforementioned strange scramble suits.
Strangely enough, the time spent with the addicts feels a little like any other druggy movie from Half Baked to The Big Lebowski (with maybe a smidge of Trainspotting thrown in). Juxtapose these scenes with Arctor spying on himself and reporting back to some type of totalitarian police state and you’ve got a feel for how this film flows (or doesn’t at times). Big themes are hinted at but never fully explored and the film purposefully sets out to confuse and jar the viewer. It works. I think this factor is why most of my fellow viewers cashed in their chips while viewing it. Around minute 70 you start trying to make everything add up nice and neat which is essentially futile here. For all the clean lines this future world projects the films blurs dangerously and dirtily towards irrelevance, or worse, incomprehensibility. Given all that, and in fact in spite of it, I found the flick interesting and odd, innovative and worthwhile.
Why? For me the themes were compelling no matter how obtuse. The film presented a police state watching your every move, people disappeared at random, everyone suspected everyone else of being a narc or a user. These were things I felt were interesting to explore on the screen. The notion of the thin line between keeping a population “safe” and keeping it “captive” was also fascinating for me. Will it be for you? At the end of the day it probably comes down to numbers. If you see one movie a week you should skip this one. If you are a major junkie, a frequent user, with three or more a week I have no doubt that you should sample this one. After all, we twenty percenters need to stick together.