The Review/Short Read/

Hump Day Movie: A Scanner Darkly

When Richard Linklater adapts a Phillip K. Dick novel, he turns it into a stoner classic

Jun 29, 2016

Shakespeare is wonderful. If you disagree with this statement, stop reading this post immediately. His works are timeless, built around universal themes and ideas that still resonate today, no matter what the context. Dude was a warlock, or a time traveler. That's the only way I can explain it.

This weekend, as the conclusion to TIFF's All The World's a Screen: Shakespeare on Film series, we will be screening Gus Van Sant's excellent 1991 film My Own Private Idaho, which is loosely based on Shakespeare's Henry plays, and which stars another potential warlock/​time traveller/​misunderstood demi-god, Keanu Reeves.

Reeves' filmography is massive. From his delightfully-deadpan turn in John Wick (I'm not joking, it's a nigh-perfect action film) to his confusing harpsichord player-turn in Dangerous Liasons, the man is a chameleon. Nowhere is this better showcased than in Richard Linklater's mind-bending sci-film venture, A Scanner Darkly.

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Based on the Phillip K. Dick novel of the same name, the film is set in a future where roughy 20 per cent of the US population is addicted to "Substance D," a powerful hallucinogenic. Reeves plays an undercover detective, Officer Fred, who is posing as a drug addict named Bob Arctor in an attempt to bust a big-time supplier. He is, of course, taking huge quantities of it, inevitably blurring the lines between his real identity and his assumed role. Arctor lives with Barris (Robert Downey Jr, slaying) and Luckman (Woody Harrelson), two fellow junkies who progressively go further and further off the deep end. As he romantically pursues his dealer, Donna (Winona Ryder, swoon), the lines between reality and fantasy begin to blur together. The viewer is made to question who, if anyone, is on the side of the law in this story.

Much of the film's inherent otherworldliness comes from its rotoscopic animation, previously seen in Linklater's film Waking Life. Computer-generated images are overlaid on the actors' faces, giving visual life to the constant shifting of reality. The characters look like liquid, their skin becomes a thin membrane against their pulsating souls. Linklater's film, while flawed, is a beautiful realization of Phillip K. Dick's original story, a cautionary tale which takes on everything from drug consumption to the development of a surveillance state. Come for the incredible animation, stay for the creeping realization that this future is not all that far off. Whoa.