Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) is an undercover police officer in Orange County, California, seven years from now, when twenty percent of the population is reported to be addicts. Arctor is working to discover who is responsible for the influx of Substance D, an extremely powerful psychoactive drug that causes severe paranoia and can induce shared hallucinations. Habitual use causes separation in the hemispheres of the brain and the user's consciousness.
As a consequence of his work, Arctor himself is an addict because, as his roommate James Barris (Robert Downey Jr.) states, "there are no 'weekend warriors' on the D. You're either on it, or you haven't tried it." Arctor gets his supply from Donna (Winona Ryder), his girlfriend, though they likely haven't consummated the relationship yet because she doesn't like being touched due to all the drugs she does.
Arctor's investigation has not taken him outside his circle of fellow users, most of who reside in the house where he used to live with his wife and two young daughters before they left him. To avoid collusion and corruption, everyone’s identity in the police division is a secret, so his superiors know him only as "Agent Fred." Assisting in the anonymity is a device called the scramble suit, a "shroudlike membrane" that masks the voice and projects on its outer surface a constant cycle of partial images of faces and bodies.
As Arctor's drug use increases, the reality he experiences becomes less and less reliable. That's not a good thing, especially when there's legitimate reason for paranoia as your house is under continual video surveillance, your superiors test you for Substance D use, and someone from your circle is making reports to the police. But then it was revealed at the onset of the film that the realities characters experience are not necessarily accurate as seen with D-user Charles Freck (Rory Cochrane) in the opening credits frantically dealing with bugs. Arctor has no idea who to trust and rightly so, especially when he can't even trust himself.
Led by Richard Linklater, the cast and crew of do an amazing job bringing Phillip K. Dick's 1977 semi-autobiographical novel of the same name to life. The cast deftly embodies these characters. I knew who they were without feeling as if I had seen them many times before. The look of the film, which Linklater also used in 'Waking Life' (2001), is marvelous to behold and made all the more captivating because the style has substance. The interpolated rotoscoping, animation drawn over high-def video, creates an alternate reality, setting it apart from our own while at the same time creating the sensation of characters' altered states.
The story is a brilliant puzzle of truth and identity amongst those slowly losing both due to their drug addictions. It's an insightful character study, a compelling mystery, and it covers themes familiar in Dick's work from social problems to the reality of consciousness. I was pleasantly surprised to be surprised by the plot turns the story took. Once all the truths are revealed, repeat viewings only make it a richer experience.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Warner Brothers brings 'A Scanner Darkly' to high-definition on a BD-50 Blu-ray disc housed inside a standard blue keepcase. The disc skips menus and goes right to the movie. It is reported to be Region Free.
As a big fan of this movie, I'm very disappointed with this Blu-ray reissue, which Warner Brothers previously released in 2007. I have seen the studio treat so many of their catalog titles very well, rivaling the work of The Criterion Collection, but with 'A Scanner Darkly', they offer the same A/V specs (can't believe they didn't improve the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track) and take away "One Summer In Austin: The Story Of Filming A Scanner Darkly" extra.
The video is presented with 1080p/VC-1 encoded transfer at an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and is one amazing-looking disc free of artifacts. The colors are stunning in their boldness and vibrancy. The blacks are rich and inky, and many edges of the characters are composed of thick, black lines. Whites look exact. All of which together make for great contrast within the frames.
For animation, greater attention than usual is paid to shadows and light as they work across objects, particularly faces, causing a paradox as items look simultaneously more and also less natural. This is due in part to the rotoscoping over live action clashing with the expectations created by previous animated works. They also play with details, drawing texture on some objects. The team also does a very good job creating depth in the 2-D world.
Sadly, in sharp contrast, the audio was paid little attention to. The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is rather lackluster, maybe due in part to the studio being disappointed in the film's weak box office performance and it being dialogue-heavy. The audio was low, and I had to crank up the volume to get decent sound. When I did, the dialogue was clear and balanced well with the music and effects within the soundtrack's limited dynamic range.
The surrounds aren't given much to do, which is quite a missed opportunity in a film where paranoia is a major component in the characters' lives. It really would have helped draw the audience closer to the characters to offer a more immersive audio experience. The bass was adequate though not memorable.
'A Scanner Darkly' presents an honest look at drug abuse without being clichéd. It focuses on the characters and the story rather than on the message. The story is also tragically informed by Dick’s own experiences, which are brought jarringly to the viewer's attention in his dedication of love during the end credits. The video is outstanding but with the audio just average and the removal of an extra, I am not sure who the audience is for this specific release. Seek out the 2007 edition.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.