The Red Right Hand

What Does A Scanner See?

Richard Linklater
Keanu Reeves
Winona Ryder
Robert Downey Jr
Woody Harrelson

Based on Philip K Dick's most personal work, A Scanner Darkly is a tale of drug use set in the near future - roughly 2015. The US is in a bad way, populated by a nation of addicts. Cocaine, caffeine, heroin, alcohol, nicotine, thermobromine, anandamide, tryptophan, phenylethylamine and other various forms of drugs are readily available and in mass supply and demand. One of the most popular on the market is a claret-coloured pill - Substance D - affectionately dubbed death. The plot unfolds in such a manner that many members of the audience will be confused as to the content and the film's direction; but everyone said the same thing about Trainspotting.

Dick's s/f literature has been inspiration for countless films (Blade Runner, Minority Report, Paycheck, Total Recall) but no one has ever attempted so close an adaptation as Linklater. The war on drugs is well and truly lost, police have sent hundreds of narcotics officers undercover to ascertain who the main distributors of death are. The film opens showing the two sides of death; the user and those attempting to stop it. We fade-in to a grubby apartment. Charles Freck [Rory Cochrane] is scratching franticly at his scalp as large green insects pour out from under his hair. Panicing, Freck calls his exceedingly articulate friend, Barris [Downey Jr.], who tells him to pack a few in a jar and bring them to him for inspection. Cut to a local support meeting where Officer 'Fred' is giving a speech on his undercover work; that everyone is addressed on first name terms, how he must wear a protective suit so as not to be recognised in the agency - clad in overalls which shift images made up of multiple fragments of people - giving the impression that the face, body and clothes are constantly changing (like taking a photo album and using it in the manner of a flick-book). Inside the suit is a rugged Bob Arctor [Reeves], who has been using and dealing undercover for some time now, living with two fellow junkies, Ernie [Harrelson] and Barris, with the occasional visit from quasi-girlfriend, Donna [Ryder]. The questions raised throughout the plot change your view point substantially; is Arctor really an undercover policeman or is he just a junkie posing as one? Who is responsible for the manufacture of Substance D? How is Donna getting hold of so much death and from whom? and who is Arctor really working for anyway? The plot shows off Dick's extraordinarily detailed novel, as paranoia and mad drug-induced escapades push our characters on through their seemingly meaningless lives, while Arctor comes to terms with the madness he is being subjected to as an after effect to Substance use.

The initial attraction and selling point (beyond the brilliance and poignancy of Dick's book) is the way in which the film has been presented. The source material is semi-autobiographical of Dick's drug years and is supposed to give a bright, colourful Californian aspect. With this in mind, Linklater has filmed the entire thing and edited it with cell-shaded animation over the top. The look is very comic book in its styling but also allows the director to get away with so much in a 'realistic' way - not too dissimilar to the manic ramblings of Hunter S Thompson's Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas. The animation makes for a unique and interesting visual effect and the only problem seems to be when the camera moves. Characters, cars, objects, they all look perfectly normal and interact in a believable way - probably because it's all been filmed and drawn over - but when the camera starts to move and 2D trees and buildings shift about the ground, it just adds an odd element, warping the mind and slightly sullying the plausible aspect... could cause motion sickness too, who knows? This title will probably loose half it's (simple minded) audience but I found the ending rewarding and completely loyal to the book.

Release Date:
18th August 2006

The Scene To Look Out For:
Before the final credits roll (playing out to the extremely fitting Black Swan by Thom Yorke), there is an on-screen quote from Philip K Dick, listing his reasons for writing this piece. He dedicates it to his friends who were heavily involved in drugs, the coda reads out almost like a military KIA list;
Harry. Deceased
Sheila. Deceased

Notable Characters:
Downey Jr's portrayal of the paranoid, skittish and often ingenious Barris is a credit to his talent, proving that he is more than an air-headed actor, generally in possession of various narcotics. When teamed with the rest of the group - namely Harrelson (a pro-Hemp activist) - he really has a chance to shine.

Highlighted Quote:
"Make it? Make what? The team? The chick? Make good? Make do? Make out? Make sense? Make money? Make time? Define your terms. The Latin for 'make' is facere, which always reminds me of fuckere, which is Latin for 'to fuck', and I have been getting jack shit in that department as of late"

In A Few Words:
"Incredibly loyal portrayal of Dick's classic SF novel, delivered with style and grace"

Total Score:

Matthew Stogdon