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Keanu Reeves as Fred/Bob Arctor
Winona Ryder as Donna
Robert Downey Jr. as Barris
Woody Harrelson as Luckman
Rory Cochrane as Freck
No one knows who Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) is, including himself. He could be a deep undercover officer of the Orange County Sheriffs Department, codenamed Fred, posing as a supplier and trying to find the source of the new super-narcotic Substance D. Or he could simply be Bob Arctor, a man who left his life behind for the warm embrace of drug addiction. His personal breakdown is compounded when 'Fred' is assigned to investigate 'Bob' who is suspected of being the major supplier of Substance D. His breakdown of identity is compounded by a breakdown of perception caused by his increasing use of Substance D, to the point where he no longer knows what he is seeing and reacting to.
Based on his own personal and self-described 'immense' drug experiences, "A Scanner Darkly" was Philip K. Dick's attempt to describe the use of drugs as both a personal and social experience. Particularly it's use in bandaging the gulf of humanity and dulling the pain of the essential loneliness of the human condition; and the irony of the fact that it actually caused the very thing it was being taken to deal with. Layered within that is Dick's own potent and very personal paranoia. In his world-view the institutions of man are very much out to get you and everything you fear is true. The very thing that claims to be trying to help you is actually causing the pain you need saving from, just like drugs. Human institutions become a form of social drug. The only thing that stands against this intrusion are the personal connections between human beings; hope rises from the same place despondency does, and it is up to each person alone to decide for themselves which they will choose.
Richard Linklater's film version of "A Scanner Darkly" is the most truthful and accurate adaptation of a Philip K. Dick story to date. Dick, with his often extremely complex investigations into the nature of identity and reality has never been the easiest author to approach much less adapt into a visual medium, but Linklater pulls it off with high style. He once again uses the roto-animation technique of "Waking Life" to add a heightened sense of unreality to a fairly real world, and in so doing creates just the right level of unease for the audience to feel what Arctor himself is feeling.
Reeves plays Arctor as a man confused and lost to the point where he hopes the scanners that have been implanted in his home - so that he can surveil himself - can see him clearly because he no longer can. Bob lusts for human contact but is no longer really capable of it. He merely views the world instead of taking part in it, a tool for other people to use. He has become a living scanner himself. He's desperately trying to reach out to Donna (Winona Ryder) but can't because, in the typical Dick conundrum, she is trying to reach out to him but in a completely different manner and for a different reason, and they keep missing each other. If they could find each other, if just two people could connect in an awful world, then everything would be saved and worth saving. But, "A Scanner Darkly" asks, is that type of connection still possible, or has it been subverted by the drugs of every day life, both the real ones and the imaginary ones?
In the end, it offers only the slightest of answers and the slimmest of hopes, because that is often all life offers as well. Whether anyone grasps that hope it leaves open for the audience to determine. The open-endedness and general slowness of the plot make "A Scanner Darkly" a bit of a difficult pill to swallow, but not an unpleasant one. As difficult and painful as it can be for humanity to face the darkest sides of itself, the fact that it can still ask those questions is cause for hope, and that might be all anyone can ask for.