Generally on this list I am not playing favourites, as it is already a list of my favourite films, but a few films really do stand out as making a big impression on me, and A Scanner Darkly is one of them. I love everything about this film, from the animation, to the writing, to the music, to the source material. I feel like it is one of those films which has been made especially for me.
A Scanner Darkly is based on the Philip K. Dick novel of the same name and it stands in the grand tradition of sci-fi films based on Philip K. Dick novels. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep became Blade Runner, We Can Remember It For You Wholesale became Total Recall, Minority Report, Paycheck, The 6th Day, the list goes on. A Scanner Darkly is perhaps Dick’s most personal work dealing with his own issues of drug abuse and paranoia. It is a deeply personal story which best defines the themes which run through all of his other writing.
Set in the near future where everything we do is recorded and monitored, A Scanner Darkly follows Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves), an undercover cop investigating the supply of a new drug called Substance D (street name Death). Death is a metaphor for all serious drugs and the long-term effects of taking Death are serious brain damage, paranoia, confusion, loss of self and eventually death itself. During the course of being undercover, Arctor has become addicted to Death and is loosing himself. As part of his undercover work investigating a Death dealing ring, Arctor is assigned to investigate himself (as his superiors do not know his identity). During the investigation, Arctor grows increasingly confused and paranoid. The ring he is involved with is centred around James Barris (Robert Downey Jr) a Death dealer and general paranoid nut case.
My favourite aspect of A Scanner Darkly is the animation. The actors were filmed against a green screen and then the backgrounds and characters animated over their performances, a process called interpolated rotoscope. This gives the animation a surreal, cartoonish edge but still capturing extremely life like performances. Everything from the colour to the background design is set up to convey Arctor’s deteriorating mental state.
The animation style perfectly suits the strong performances from the film. Reeves is great at looking perpetually confused and worried, Downey Jr is stunning as the psychotic Barris. His insane thought process, played out through the film’s wonderful dialogue, is both hilarious and terrifying. The character also perfectly plays off Downey Jr’s real life drug woes.
The supporting cast of Winona Ryder and Woody Harrelson are also excellent. Special mention must go to the latter for delivering my favourite line of film perfectly: “What if they came in through the back door or the bathroom window, like the infamous Beatles song?”
This film is everything that is great about Dick’s writing: dark, surreal and painful. It is desperate cry for help, muffled by the cruel world it takes place in. The animation is stunning and the visuals suit the story and mood perfectly.