If there is one movie that gives you a psychedelic experience without using drugs, it has to be A Scanner Darkly. In this review, we’ll explain why. Beware: The story is discussed under the heading 'What the story is about'. If you don’t want to read any spoilers, skip this part!
Based on Philip K. Dick's book
A Scanner Darkly is a 2006 movie directed by Richard Linklater, an independent American film-maker. The film is based on Philip K. Dick's same-named book from 1977. It's definitely not the first adaptation of one of his books, movies like Paul Verhoeven's Total Recall, Steven Spielberg's Minority Report and Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, came before A Scanner Darkly.
According to both critics and fans, A Scanner Darkly is the most faithful adaptation of one of Dick's books. In fact, this movie comes closest to the experience in the book, a world filled with paranoia, psychedelic experiences, hallucinations and conspiracies. At the same time, philosophical questions are discussed, such as human identity and the true nature of reality. In addition, the film criticises contemporary society, especially regarding state-sponsored surveillance and espionage.
These kinds of experiences and themes occur in almost all of Philip K. Dick's books. This largely has to do with his own life. Dick was known as an avid drug user. He experimented with different drugs in his life. He also wrote many of his books under the influence of drugs. For example, he regularly took amphetamine when he sat down to write. His own experiences with drugs can be found in a number of his books. A Scanner Darkly is one of the best-known ones, which should be no surprise, as it is a semi-autobiographical story. Philip K. Dick has incorporated many of his own experiences into this dystopic science-fiction story.
What the story is about
The movie takes place in America. A new, extremely strong and dangerous drug called 'Substance D' led to a true drug epidemic. About 20% of the total population is addicted to it.
A Scanner Darkly tells the story of Bob Arctor, the main character. He lives with a number of drug users but is also an undercover agent with the code name Agent Fred. He has been deployed by the police to spy on his room-mates and infiltrate the drug network.
At the police office, nobody knows who he is. He wears a 'scramble suit' that hides his true identity. The other agents also wear this vest, so nobody really knows who is who. Bob has become addicted to Substance D as an undercover agent and falls in love with Donna, a drug dealer. He is hanging out with her in the hopes of infiltrating the drug network more deeply.
At the police station, Hank, Fred's (Bob’s) manager tells him to step up his spying efforts on Bob (himself) and his friends. The story is about to make more bizarre twists. At one point, Barris, one of Bob's room-mates, goes to the police because he suspects Bob and Donna to be terrorists. He hands over fake evidence to the police.
Hank orders him arrested because he made a false statement. Hank then explains to Fred that he found out he must be Bob. But Bob's addiction messes with this brain, the drug leads to bizarre hallucinations and his two brain hemispheres no longer work together, instead, they start to compete with each other. This leads to a split personality of sorts, and Bob hardly recognises himself when he sees himself on video.
Hank is now angry with Bob because he became addicted. Hank arranges with Donna (who turned out to be another undercover agent) that Bob will be taken to New-Path, a rehabilitation clinic. Bob leaves the office swearing. Hank then shows his true identity when he turns off his scramble suit – he turns out to be Donna.
But wait, it gets even weirder. Bob is changing more and more in a zombie because of the withdrawal symptoms and brain damage caused by his addiction. He can no longer function normally. But what turns out? New-Path is the organisation that produces Substance D. They use the addicts to take care of the flowers from which Substance D is produced because they are so out of touch with reality that they hardly know what they’re doing. It also becomes clear that the police used Bob - and let him become addicted – so that he hopefully returns from rehab with enough evidence to shut down New-Path.
In the last scene, we see Bob on one of New-Path’s farms. He is working in a cornfield, but at the soil, he sees the flowers from which Substance D is made. In the end, we see Bob hiding one of the flowers in his shoe. It’s probably his intention to hand this over to the police as evidence. We never learn if he actually does this.
A real psychedelic cult movie
You can imagine that the movie feels like a trip. All kinds of bizarre phenomena happen, such as Bob who has to spy himself, Hank who eventually turns out to be Donna and New-Path who are behind Substance D's production. From Bob’s point of view, you often don’t know what is real, and you jump from one perspective to another without having control over it. Sounds like a trip?
One of the most special features of the film is the way in which everything looks on screen. The film is digitally recorded, with real actors like Keanu Reeves (Bob Arctor / Agent Fred) and Winona Ryder (Donna). Even Alex Jones plays a small role.
The recordings were edited afterwards, with a computer program called Rotoshop. This program uses rotoscope technology. The result? The film looks like a cross between a real movie and a cartoon. Sometimes everything seems to be drawn, but at other times things almost seem lifelike. The characters move and behave like real people, but are brought to life animation style. It's not a real cartoon, you can see the reality shine through. In addition, the surroundings sometimes vibrate. These kinds of techniques really give the movie a trippy effect.
The 'scramble suit' is something rather otherworldly. When you see this suit, you'll see the faces of the characters change continuously. It seems like they have dozens of different faces. That’s really trippy, right?
In short, this is definitely a movie to watch if you want to have a psychedelic experience without using something (or if you want, with). The story is very gloomy and Substance D is definitely not depicted as a fun and recreational drug, but watching this movie is a psychedelic experience in itself and is definitely worth it.
In addition, the film raises all sorts of questions. If you watch the movie with friends, be prepared for some lively discussions and/or philosophical conversations.
A Scanner Darkly (2006)
Director: Richard Linklater
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder, Robert Downey Jr. Woody Harrelson
Running time: 100 minutes