Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our inscrutable whims. This week: With the Hugh Jackman vehicle Reminiscence headed for theaters and streaming, we’re thinking back on other sci-fi noirs.
Philip K. Dick’s 1977 novel A Scanner Darkly is an oddball mash-up of genres—a strange admixture whose stylistic shifts get even more pronounced in Richard Linklater’s film adaptation. During a time (“seven years from now,” according to the opening title card) when America is in the throes of a massive new drug epidemic—“Substance D,” a brain-shredding euphoric which causes almost instantaneous dependence—a small group of addicted acquaintances hang out, get high, argue, goof around, debate pointless minutiae, and ultimately turn on one another. Linklater has made what almost plays like a narcotized version of one of his hang-out movies, and a spiritual relative of his debut, Slacker. Narratively, very little happens here, but this time, it’s not so fun just spending time with the characters. We’re watching unstable people go from tolerable to less so, all while waiting for the bottom to inevitably drop out.
Yet this drugged-out slice-of-life storyline is uneasily smuggled in under the artifices of a more conventional techno-thriller. A Scanner Darkly simultaneously unfurls a noir-indebted, near-future plot that would likely look timely in just about any era but looks especially so in the age of the surveillance state. Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) is an undercover agent assigned to infiltrate a group of Substance D users in an attempt to work his way up the narcotics-dealing food chain. He spends his days hanging out in a house with roommates and fellow drug abusers—jittery, paranoid Barris (Robert Downey, Jr.) and genial but emotionally volatile Luckman (Woody Harrelson)—while slowly trying to get in better with his dealer/girlfriend, Donna (Winona Ryder), in hopes of eventually scoring a meeting with her supplier.
The twist, so to speak, is that Arctor’s real identity is unknown even to his immediate superiors. At work, he wears a “scramble suit,” which continually alters his appearance and voice, and goes by the name “Fred,” the better to ensure his complete anonymity and ability to infiltrate the criminal underworld undetected. This works out great... right up to the point when Fred is ordered by his boss to officially open a file and begin spying on “Bob Arctor.” Which is also right around the moment that viewers realize this isn’t going to be some cat-and-mouse game of a clever protagonist outwitting his employers and his increasingly suspicious roommates: Thanks to the Substance D he’s been routinely ingesting, Arctor’s own brain is starting to unspool.
To better fuse disparate genres, Linklater returns to the rotoscope animation he deployed in his earlier Waking Life, a technique that involves animators drawing over live-action footage frame by frame. This approach allows the director to combine hallucinatory imagery and prosaic everyday moments, eerily replicating the paranoiac visions of someone on powerful drugs. There are some nightmarish moments, like Arctor’s addled buddy (Dazed And Confused’s Rory Cochrane) attempting to scrub away the bugs he sees crawling all over him in the opening sequence, and a later scene of panic in which Arctor suddenly sees Donna’s face on the body of a random woman he’s slept with. Through these hallucinations, Reeves’ undercover agent becomes something darker than the traditional noir gumshoe: a cop who can’t even trust his own instincts or senses because they’ve started to lie to him.
That’s the compelling, unsettling draw of A Scanner Darkly: It adopts the conventions of a detective story, then immediately twists them, pretzel-like, into a tale about the costs of drug use and abuse, as depicted through an all-too-real (and sometimes surprisingly funny) series of vignettes involving a trio of pitiable characters. Downey’s motor-mouthed, tinfoil-hat solipsist routinely steals scenes, but all the leads do excellent work, managing to infuse sequences of ambling, glassy-eyed stoner talk with humor and pathos, sidestepping the wallowing tragedy of so many addiction stories. Dick’s source material gives the movie its idiosyncratic way in to somber thematic concerns, but it’s Linklater and his sharp cast that make it sing.
Availability: A Scanner Darkly is available to rent or purchase from the major digital services.