A Scanner Darkly is a 2006 science fiction thriller directed by Richard Linklater based on the novel of the same name by Philip K. Dick. The film tells the story of identity and deception in a near-future dystopia constantly under intrusive high-technology police surveillance in the midst of a drug addiction epidemic. The movie was filmed digitally and then animated using interpolated rotoscope over the original footage, giving it its distinctive look.
The film was written and directed by Linklater and stars Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder, Woody Harrelson, Robert Downey, Jr., and Rory Cochrane. Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney are among the executive producers. A Scanner Darkly had a limited release in July 2006, and then a wider release later that month. The film was screened at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival and the 2006 Seattle International Film Festival, and nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form in 2007.
Seven years from now America has lost the war on drugs, with 20% of the population being addicts. The highly addictive ‘Substance D’, a powerful psychoactive drug causing a dreamy state of intoxication and bizarre hallucinations, has swept across the country; chronic users may develop a split personality, cognitive problems, and severe paranoia. In response, the government develops an invasive, high-tech surveillance system and puts in place a network of informants and undercover agents.
The film opens with Charles Freck awakening in his cramped apartment to hallucinations of insects crawling all over him and his sleeping dog. Freck takes a shower, hoping to wash the insects away, but he is unsuccessful and contacts James Barris for help. Barris agrees to meet Freck in a cafe, where they both daydream and hallucinate. Both of them are drug addicts and both are addicted to ‘Substance D’. Barris muses – “Either you’re addicted, or you haven’t tried it”.
Bob Arctor is an undercover Police detective assigned to immerse himself in the drugs underworld and infiltrate the supply chain. Arctor and his housemates, Ernie Luckman and James Barris, live in a suburban house in a cul-de-sac in a run-down part of Anaheim, California. They pass their days by taking drugs and having long, paranoia-inspired conversations. At the Police station Arctor works as a detective codenamed Fred, and he hides his identity from his fellow Police officers by wearing a high-tech scramble suit that constantly changes every aspect of the wearer’s appearance. Arctor’s senior officer Hank, and all of the other undercover officers at the station, also wear scramble suits.
Whilst posing as a drug user, Arctor becomes addicted to ‘Substance D’. Arctor also befriends an attractive young woman named Donna Hawthorne, who is a cocaine addict; she is Arctor’s supplier of ‘Substance D’ and part of the drugs scene. Arctor hopes to purchase large enough quantities of ‘Substance D’ from Donna so that she is forced to introduce him to her supplier, but Arctor develops romantic feelings for her. Donna rejects Arctor’s sexual advances and Barris questions the true nature of their relationship. Barris implies to Freck that he too has made advances towards Donna only to be similarily rejected.
Hank orders Fred to step up surveillance on the group. Hank assumes that Fred is one of the members of the Arctor household, but does not know which one. Hank suggests that Fred concentrate his surveillance on the suspected ringleader, Arctor, thereby unknowingly ordering him to spy upon himself. Meanwhile, the household members are paranoid that the Police have bugged their home and are watching their every move. Their paranoia reaches extreme levels and Arctor becomes wrapped up in the concerns of his housemates, forgetting that he is an undercover Police officer. Barris secretly contacts the Police and tells them that he suspects that Donna and Arctor are part of a terrorist organization. Barris unknowingly conveys this information to Arctor at the police station, when Arctor is wearing his scramble suit in his role as Detective Fred.
Due to Arctor’s use of ‘Substance D’, he develops cognitive problems which stops the two hemispheres of his brain from communicating with each other, causing him to receive two different sets of information that are in conflict with one another. Throughout the story Arctor experiences flashbacks to his family life, wherein he has a wife and two daughters, and he reminisces about the times he spent with them. Arctor later learns that he does not, in fact, have a family.
After Barris supplies the Police with a fake recording which he alleges proves that Donna and Arctor belong to a terrorist organisation, Hank orders that Barris is held on charges of providing false information to the Police. After Barris’s arrest Hank reveals to Fred that he has deduced, through the process of elimination, that Fred is really Arctor. Arctor is surprised to learn of his own true identity and he becomes extremely confused and upset. Hank informs Arctor that the whole point of the surveillance was to catch Barris, not Arctor; the Police suspected Barris of being involved in the ‘Substance D’ supply chain all along, and were setting Barris up by increasing his paranoia until he attempted to cover his tracks. As a result of his ‘Substance D’ addiction Arctor is no longer able to distinguish between the roles of his undercover character and his real job as a Police officer. Hank reprimands Arctor for becoming addicted to ‘Substance D’ and warns him that he will be disciplined.
Whilst a clearly distressed Arctor begins to break down, Hank phones Donna and asks her to take Arctor to New Path, a corporation that runs a series of rehabilitation clinics. After Arctor leaves the office, Hank enters the locker room and removes his scramble suit, at which point his true identity is revealed to be Donna. At New Path, Arctor experiences the severe symptoms of ‘Substance D’ withdrawal. Also at New Path is Charles Freck, who was admitted after a failed suicide bid. As part of the rehabilitation program, Arctor is renamed Bruce and put through psychological reconditioning treatments. Arctor suffers brain damage as a result of his withdrawal from ‘Substance D’.
Sometime later Donna, now using her real name Audrey, has a conversation with another Police officer named Mike (briefly seen undercover as an orderly at New Path). It is revealed that New Path is responsible for the manufacture and distribution of ‘Substance D’. Donna and Mike are part of a Police operation to infiltrate New Path, and Arctor had been selected – without his knowledge or consent – to carry out the sting. It is further revealed that the Police had intended for Arctor to become addicted to ‘Substance D’; his well-being was sacrificed so that he might enter a rehabilitation center unnoticed as a genuine addict in order to find proof of New Path’s crimes. They debate whether or not there is still enough left of Arctor’s mind for him to know what to do if he finds any evidence.
To continue his rehabilitation, New Path sends Arctor to work at an isolated New Path farming prison, where he spots rows of blue flowers hidden between rows of corn. These flowers, referenced throughout the film, are the source of ‘Substance D’. As the film ends, Arctor hides one of the blue flowers in his boot, so that when he returns to the New Path clinic during Thanksgiving he can give it to his friends.
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