Here's the interesting thing about Richard Linklater's "A Scanner Darkly": for a film about heavy drug use set in the not too distant future, it's probably one of the most honest and complex anti-drug stories ever told. I say this in spite of the fact that I found the specifics of the plot incredibly difficult to grasp. All I could comprehend were the general bits of information, most of which were gathered from trailers and commercials. Apparently, a fictional drug called Substance D rules the streets of Orange County, California. It's a highly addictive, brain-frying narcotic that has a long list of negative side effects. It's also an illegal substance, one that undercover cop Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) has gotten quite familiar with in his attempt to locate its main distributor. Upon infiltrating the home of a group of pill popping slackers, he starts using in order to blend in. Unfortunately, this drugged lifestyle eventually leaves him unable to distinguish reality from hallucinations.
Through the cinematic process of rotoscoping, Linklater has enabled the audience to feel the exact same way as Arctor does. Each frame of film was traced over and stylistically repainted, making the world the characters live in--as well as the characters themselves--look half like a cartoon and half like the physical realm. It was an absolutely incredible look, and I found that it gave the story an added dimension by representing a kind of realistic unreality (if that makes any sense at all). In that sense, it's almost symbolic that the undercover cops wear scramble suits, which are high tech cloaks with anatomical images that continuously shift from one to the next (apparently, a single suit can project millions of appearances). The state of the world these characters live in is ruled by uncertainty and deception. Arctor is ultimately tested, not only in terms of what he believes to be the truth, but in terms of his state of mind, as well.
I now understand why that rotoscoping process was used for an adaptation of a Philip K. Dick novel. Only he could have written about the life-destroying effects of an addictive substance. Likewise, only this kind of film can do justice to the point he was trying to make, namely that you can't trust anyone, especially when you're addicted to a powerful drug. Unfortunately, elaborating on that point would give too much away; I will say that all in this movie isn't exactly as it seems, and more than a couple of characters have hidden agendas. There are a number of truths hidden amongst the film's eccentric style, and by the time you get halfway through, you're completely lost.
However, this is the kind of movie you don't mind getting lost in, even if you have no idea what's going on. I have to admit that while I understood the underlying message of the story, I barely understood this film as a whole. Watching the sequences unfold and listening to the characters interact is almost as brain scrambling as the evil Substance D is. This is especially true of the conversations between James Barris (Robert Downey, Jr.), Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson), and Charles Freck (Rory Cochrane), three of Arctor's equally spaced out friends. Their esoteric banter flows seamlessly from topic to topic in an Altered Consciousness sort of way, filled with anti-establishment ramblings that almost come off as poetic. It even gets comical at times; during a road trip to San Diego, Barris claims he left the front door of their house unlocked and attached a note for burglars to read (which, supposedly, was all part of an elaborate scheme to record the intruder and solve the mystery behind the Substance D ring).
There are some interesting moments shared between Arctor and his girlfriend, Donna Hawthorne (Winona Ryder). Their relationship revolves around their mutual abuse of Substance D, which doesn't exactly enhance their moments together so much as it leaves them in a perpetually dazed state of awareness. Their conversations are almost as esoteric as those of Barris, Luckman, and Freck, the only difference being a small degree of intimate, meaningful language. One also gets the sense that Arctor is trying to understand Donna as a person, specifically why she's behaving in certain ways. He knows how devastating the effects of Substance D can be, and he fears that maybe she's going too far with her usage. The two show genuine concern for one another, even when they find themselves lost in a conversation about drooping, floating cats.
Despite the free flowing course the story takes, everything does come together by the end. "A Scanner Darkly" is one of those movies that can cleverly hide behind a hallucinogenic facade in order to convey a serious message. If you're considering seeing this movie, you have to be willing to get jerked around somewhat, especially when it comes to your expectations for solid characterizations and straightforward storytelling. I think I knew all along that I'd find this film confusing; the ads made it perfectly clear that this was a very unconventional project. But in the end, I didn't really mind; the story takes on the form of a seriously warped puzzle, and I welcomed the opportunity to put the pieces together and figure things out for myself.
Let me end by quoting the tagline from Jim Henson's "Labyrinth": "A world where everything seems possible, and nothing is as it seems." I find this to be a fitting way to describe the world of "A Scanner Darkly." If you see it with that quote in mind, you just might come away with a better understanding of it.