Viking Night: A Scanner Darkly

By Bruce Hall

April 5, 2016

There's gonna be a kitten named after me.

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I have now seen A Scanner Darkly several times. Each time I see it, I feel like it may inadvertently be a genius level piece of fan fiction. Obviously, like 12 percent of all movies ever made, it’s based on a Philip K. Dick story, which is also code for “bugnuts insane.” It takes place in a suffocating surveillance state where government espionage is virtually unchecked. And it concerns activities within a dilapidated suburban home where Slater from Dazed and Confused, late ‘90s Robert Downey Jr, Woody Harrelson and Sad Keanu hang around smoking pot and drinking beer at two in the afternoon. Needless to say, Winona Ryder is Keanu’s love interest, and she is also on drugs.

This movie is also animated, using a technique that recreates what the world looks like when you’re on bath salts.

It’s hard to explain why, but I kind of like this film, even though I’m not entirely sure I understand it. Maybe it’s because it really does sound like the best fanfic ever. The setup is that the “drug problem” has spiraled out of control, so that about a quarter of the nation’s population are like our friends I just mentioned. Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) is a scruffy 30-something who lives in the battered old home he once shared with his wife and kids. Now he cohabitates with Barris (Downey), a pedantic motormouth, and Luckman (Harrelson), a good natured burnout whose brain is so fried he might legally be considered produce.


Needless to say, Donna (Winona Ryder) is Arctor’s love interest, and she is also on drugs. And speaking of drugs, cocaine and heroin are old news. The hip new way to kill yourself is called Substance D, and although I don’t remember anyone ever explaining what it does, it’s clear that long term use leads to paranoia, hallucinations, and acting like Woody Harrelson

But here’s the good part. Arctor is also an undercover cop - or what passes for one in a world where everyone is an informant. With the drug epidemic as bad as it is, the government has taken public surveillance to unprecedented levels. It’s safe to assume that no matter who you are, or where you are, someone is always watching. But with every square inch of the city under constant watch, keeping identities secret is doubly important. So, when they’re back at HQ with all the other cops, undercover agents wear special suits to conceal their identities. The effect is that you look AND sound like everyone and no one, all at once. Think of it as a combination full body condom/holographic imaging device, if that helps.

So, Arctor and his boss (known only as “Hank”) see each other every day, but neither man has any idea who the other one is. It’s an environment where one could be manager of an entire team, without having any idea who any of them are. Now imagine this kind of thing on agency level, and you can see how Arctor inadvertently ends up becoming the subject of his own investigation. Jealous of Arctor’s relationship with Donna, Barris implicates him to the police, and unknowingly ends up interviewing with Arctor and Hank.. Since Hank has no idea the person standing in front of him IS Arctor, he orders a surveillance kit on the house.

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