A Story of Drug Abuse
Richard Linklater’s rotoscoped animation A Scanner Darkly is a faithful adaptation of a Philip K. Dick novel of the same name. Published in 1977 Dick’s book is a sympathetic portrayal of the drug abuser’s life.
Keanu Reeves plays Bob Arctor, an undercover narcotics agent who infiltrates the Californian drug scene with the aim of establishing and trapping a high level target or two. Arctor, though, soon becomes too involved with the friends he’s made in this shifty underworld, and he’s soon one of them, taking just as many tablets of the extremely addictive and destructive drug, Substance D, as his addict companions: love interest, Donna Hawthorne (Winona Ryder), and flatmates Jim Barris (Robert Downey Jr.) and Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson).
A Scanner Darkly
In A Scanner Darkly the identities of the undercover narcotics agents are hidden from even their supervisors by an image shifting suit, a devise that when worn continuously changes the image of its wearer, distorting facial features and even disguising the wearer’s voice, replacing it with a homogeneous digitised one. Arctor when in this suit is called Fred to hide his identity, and gives updates to his superior, “Hank”, who’s also in a similar image shifting suit, so that neither Fred nor Hank know the other’s true identity.
The pressure then continues to mount when Hank unwittingly asks Fred to investigate Arctor who he believes is a high-level target. This unlikely situation where Arctor investigates himself, that is Fred investigating Arctor, will create the kind of environment that will lead to the unravelling of the detective, whose mind is already being compromised by his addiction to Substance D.
Reality and Identity
Philip K. Dick is renowned for stories that deal with concepts of reality and identity. His fiction deftly provokes questioning of the verisimilitude of our world. Novels like The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch and Ubik effortlessly weave between worlds and bring a philosophical weight to the universes the writer has crafted. A Scanner Darkly is no different and follows Mr. Dick’s penchant for multifaceted views of the same world, but there’s no mistaking the author’s heavy emotional involvement in this particular tale.
Dick admitted that by 1971 he was “ingesting 1000 hits of speed a week, along with plentiful daily dozes of tranquillisers.” At the end of the novel, as with the film, the story is dedicated to the fallen, those who “played” in the drug scene and lost far too much. Like Adam in the Garden who gave away humanity’s future for the taste of an apple, the price paid for their mistakes seems overly cruel and excessive.