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A Scanner Darkly is presented in a style well suited to a story about drug trips set in a future with technology that doesn’t exist yet.

It was created the same way Waking Life was. Basically, the movie is shot on video, then imported to a computer, then traced, then manipulated. The result looks like a very life-like cartoon, but stylized according to the whims of the animators and artists.

Better than a Dreamcoat

Freck tries to get the bugs off for longer than is strictly necessary
Freck tries to get the bugs off for longer than is strictly necessary

Our protagonist is played by Keanu Reeves. He goes by two different names. When he’s working for the agency in his scramble suit, he goes by Fred. The “agency” is a future version of the Drug Enforcement Agency. The “scramble suit” is a standard-issue disguise; it projects an ever-changing kaleidoscope of personal features so that at any given moment, the agent may appear to be half a dozen different people.

Fred is assigned to snoop on, coincidentally, his true identity, Robert Arctor. Arctor’s friends (played by an impressive cast of actor and users: Woody Harrelson, Robert Downey, Jr., Winona Ryder, and Rory Cochrane) are all addicted to “D.” Fred’s superiors think one of them may be connected to the producers and distributors of the highly addictive drug. As Jim Barris (Downey Jr.) says of D, “You’re either on it or you’ve never tried it.”

You Can’t Land on a Fraction, Man

The movie opens on Freck (Cochrane) trying to scratch the bugs off his skin and out of his hair. The scene lasts much longer than it needs to, but in doing so it captures the sense of interminable paranoid helplessness that a bad trip can bring.

Other scenes play long too, slowly demonstrating the brilliant, surreal, unassailable logic of the tripper. Take for example the scene where Jim arrives at Arctor’s house to show off his new 18-speed bike. When Ernie (Harrelson) only counts 9 gears — three in the front and six in the back — all four of the friends discuss, at length, what happened to the missing gears and whether they ought to be worried about whoever it was that did this to them.

Along the way, there are other brilliant snips of drug-addled dialogue, where the smallest connection seems like the most important insight. Flashing back to when he hit his head on a cabinet door, Arctor realizes that it wasn’t the cabinet door he hated, but his life. When he’s given a simple brain function test and he mistakes a vaguely quadrupedal silhouette of a “dog” for a sheep, he is devastated. “What does that mean, that I saw a sheep?”


The investigation into Arctor and his friends does get resolved, and afterwards, there is more exposition which helps explain a small piece of the movie’s cryptic universe. But the plot seems to be pretty low on the list of things that the movie is “about.”

In fact, after the climax, I thought the explanations were almost a distraction. Yes, they add to the thematic depth of the movie, but the movie is so strongly about the style, tone, and dialogue, that adding another dimension, in some way, detracts from the movie’s focus on the drugs and paranoia.

Fully Awake

In Waking Life, Linklater and his animators would occasionally color outside the lines, making full use of the medium. In A Scanner Darkly, I expected to see more of that sort of creativity, but there wasn’t much, if any. Everything on the screen was justified by the story. The scramble suits keep changing, but that’s what a scramble suit does.

Rather than bemoan the absence of animated embellishments, though, I think it’s a sign that Linklater has become comfortable with his new medium. He won’t do something experimental just because he can. That makes A Scanner Darkly a stronger and more mature film — stylistically speaking — than Waking Life.

Still, I can imagine potential moviegoers who might disappointed by the slow and somber tone. The trailer promises a more futuristic, more conventional movie that what Linklater is offering. Those looking for the next Heavy Metal may be bummed at how heavy A Scanner Darkly is. Those hoping for the next Blade Runner will be disappointed in how low-tech and down-to-earth it is.

A Scanner Darkly earns a recommendation as a wonderfully trippy movie; just set your expectations appropriately before you tune in.