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“What does a scanner see? Into the head? Into the heart? Does it see into me? Clearly? Or darkly?”

Richard Linklater, director of the classic School of Rock, takes us on a very unusual journey of identity, paranoia and surveillance amidst the backdrop of a dystopian L.A. where the war on drugs has failed. A Scanner Darkly follows Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves), an undercover detective who tries to find out more about the rise of ‘Substance D’ via his drug addicted friends James (Robert Downey, Jr.), Ernie (Woody Harrelson) and Donna (Winona Ryder). Bob never really gets up to much, considering all his friends really do (especially James) is have long paranoiac conversations, so, when at the police station he wears a ‘scramble suit’ which constantly changes his appearance and is code named ‘Fred’. However, Bob becomes heavily addicted to Substance D which makes him unaware of who he really is as he is told to investigate into himself more…

The film is visually outstanding. Linklater has previously used the Rotoscope technique in his heavily philosophical art-house film Waking Life. In A Scanner Darkly, he takes it to a whole new level in a very artistic world. For those who don’t know, the Rotoscope technique is when live action footage is traced over and animated, giving a very unusual and interesting effect. Shane F. Kelly as the cinematographer does a very good job presenting the constant fear that addicts of Substance D go through such as a close up of Bob hallucinating that James and Ernie are giant bugs. All the cast offer very good performances, Keanu for once puts a fair amount of effort in his acting in contrast to some of his poorer performances (hint hint, Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula). I personally think this is one of Robert Downey, Jr.’s best roles because he perfectly suited the eccentric style of James and reminded me in a way of his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes due to the selfishness and drug addictions in both characters.

However as much as I liked the film as a very good adaptation of Philip Kindred’s novel, I felt disappointed in that the plot was very confusing at times and in a way I felt a lot more could have developed. A Scanner Darkly as a film portrays beautifully the experiences of addicts very much like what Philip intends in the novel since it’s based on his experiences as an addict of amphetamines and dedicates it to “some people who were punished entirely too much for what they did”, in this case, his friends who suffered from various physical and psychological effects. Philip even goes as far to include himself in the list, “Phil” – a victim of permanent pancreatic damage.

On the whole, a good adaptation of a classic sci-fi story. However, prepare to be lost in a very radical and colourful world of deception as the story moves quite quickly and in a very puzzling way, so be sure to pay attention to Bob and the gang talking a lot of meaningful nonsense! An interesting film with a strong message, A Scanner Darkly is one of more stimulating Philip Kindred adaptations I’ve seen in a while but it’s ever so slightly disappointing due to a confusing plot. All in all, I still recommend watching this film because of the good performances and of course the fantastic visuals. It doesn’t beat School of Rock but it’s still a trippy adventure into the future that’s worth tuning into!

3/5

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