A Scanner Darkly

Director: Richard Linklater.
Screenplay: Richard Linklater.
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder, Rory Cochrane, Melody Chase, Alex Jones, Lisa Marie Newmyer, Turk Pipkin, Steven Chester Prince.

“What does a scanner see? Into the head? Into the heart? Does it see into me? Clearly? Or darkly?”

(This review was a piece that was originally involved in The Decades Blogathon hosted by Mark of Three Rows Back and Tom of Digital Shortbread. These guys are two of the finest around and I wholeheartedly recommend their sites if you don’t know them already. You can check out their sites and all the Blogathon entries from the links above.)

In 2001, director Richard Linklater delivered a little-seen, gem of a film called Waking Life. Many didn’t pay notice to it which is one of many a film viewers biggest mistakes. Granted, the philosophical material may not have been everyone’s idea of entertainment but this film pioneered a filmmaking technique that, simply, shouldn’t have been overlooked. Linklater approached Waking Life with an animation method called “Rotoscoping”. Basically it was animation added over live actors and it’s a process that can be painstaking to deliver. The results were hugely effective for the material and, five years later, he decided to use the technique again on his adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s paranoid science fiction novel, A Scanner Darkly. Once again, the results are very impressive.

In the near future, Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) an undercover cop, is given the assignment to bring down a vast network of drug distribution, dealing in “Substance D” – which is highly addictive and mind altering. He fully immerses himself in the lifestyle, to the point were he has become an addict himself and even his superiors don’t know his cover story. As a result, they order him to spy on himself. Being under the influence regularly, it causes him to lose his grip on reality where nothing is clear anymore.

Before this film went into production, it had gained interest from a couple of notable players in the film industry. Director Terry Gilliam was interested in the early 90’s and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman had actually drafted a screenplay that was eventually unused once he became more sought after following the success of Being John Malkovich. One can only wonder at what might have become of an adaptation had they been involved but that doesn’t lessen the fact that Linklater does a sterling job here. For a start, his decision to implement the “interpolated rotoscoping” animation again is a stroke of genius. On Waking Life it complimented the existential dream-like story and it’s used similarly on this film. It’s a technique that could be in danger of overuse but when the story and characters themselves are operating from an occasional surreal point of view, rotoscoping is perfectly fitting. It serves as a metaphor for the characters’ drug induced alternate realities and allows us to identify with their paranoia and the struggle with their personal identity. You’d be forgiven for thinking that it might take away from the actors’ performances but it doesn’t. In some ways it enhances them; Reeves is an actor that has came in for some criticism throughout his career but he’s really rather good here and the support, from Harrelson and especially Downey Jr, is excellent. Who better to be included in a film of substance abuse than a couple of actors who have dabbled with both herbal and chemical remedies in their time? 
The script is also very faithful to Philip K. Dick’s own source material. You can tell Linklater has invested a lot of his time in adapting, what is essentially, some of Dick’s own paranoid thoughts – he was heavily involved in the abuse of amphetamines and psychedelics at the time of writing it – and explores the usual themes involved in his novels; the sociological and political aspects of human society under the control of an authoritarian government. If your a fan of Dick’s musings then you’ll find them all here. Some may find fault with the film’s slightly lethargic pace but the visuals and thought provoking content are so captivating that the pace can be forgiven. Sometimes Philip K. Dick’s stories are not afforded the proper treatment in movies; there are stinkers like Nicolas Cage’s Next and Ben Affleck’s Paycheck but this ranks very highly alongside the successful adaptations like Total Recall and Blade Runner.

Linklater’s attention and commitment to Philip K Dick’s challenging material pays off and he produces a thought-provoking head-trip of a film that delivers both intellectually and visually. 
Mark Walker

Trivia: Philip K. Dick’s daughters gave director Richard Linklater their father’s personal copy of the novel “A Scanner Darkly” when he completed this movie.

28 Responses to “A Scanner Darkly”

  1. A classic of the genre and Linklater.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve said it once I’ll say it again, great review sir!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Nice review Mark. Despite being an ardent fan of Linklater’s work, I shamefully have not seen this movie. Better get my hands on this soon.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Yeah this really inspires me to soak this one in again, it was a really interesting watch the first time. And it’s been awhile. Thanks so much for helping us make the Decdeas a good one dude! Appreciate the love.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Again, still on my rewatch list!

    Liked by 2 people

  6. This is such an interesting film. I need to give it a rewatch.


  7. Great review, Mark, this looks really interesting. I’m genuinely intrigued by this rotoscoping technique used in the film, as I hadn’t really been aware of it if I’m honest. I’ll definitely be giving this a watch.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Cheers Liam. I highly recommend it and I also recommend Linklater’s earlier film Waking Life where he originally used the rotoscoping technique. Two great films and some of Linklater’s best works.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Wow. Okay, why have I not seen this movie?! This sounds like my IDEAL movie! 😀

    Liked by 2 people

    • You should check it, man. It’s top quality stuff.


      • I reckopn I tried to watch it once but I was on acid and the visual were just too much for me at that time haha. I definitely need to give it a proper watch

        Liked by 1 person

      • Ahaha! I’ve done acid on a few occasions, man. Can’t honestly say I’ve ever experienced a film while on it, though. That said, I’d love to do acid with A Scanner Darkly and Waking Life. Perfect films for a right good trip! 🙂


      • Yeah that is what I thought, but I’d taken too much and the crazy visuals were just too much!! Man all I do if I trip is watch movies (if I’m not in a forest, staring at the stars haha), they become so enhanced and you see them in a totally different way. Its winter here, mushroom season is beginning! ;D

        Liked by 1 person

      • Aww man! I actually moved myself from the city (originally I’m from Glasgow – the largest city in Scotland) but now I live in the country and even build myself a wooden cabin (known as a “hut”). I love the outdoors, man, and have a keen eye on astronomy and nature as a result. Strange thing is, I haven’t had a trip since I moved and I can’t find a mushroom patch yet. They normally grow in September for us. We’re just hitting summer here. I think I may have to mail order them from somewhere. It’s been too long since I had mushies! 😉

        Liked by 1 person

      • Its been a while for me as well, my spot got found and raided by morons who don’t know how to collect them properly. And they littered, which really pisses me off. If I smoke a cig while hunting I put it out with the bottom of my shoe and put the but in a coke can or something. Littering has to be the most moronic crime.

        My mate said he has a spot but he’s so freaking…. I dunno, always complaining about being addicted to benzos, but doesn’t listen to me, someone who has been clean for five years. He doesn’t call my doc when I give him the number, he is always thinking of hospitalising himself, just because he doesn’t have the balls to man up and go through the hell that is withdrawal. So somehow I don’t think we’ll be going to his spot.

        So now I need to find a new place… gonna head down to a forest this week.

        Sounds like your hut is in an ideal place. I really want to live out in the sticks, away from the fucking concrete jungle. I hate the constant sound of cars and trucks, does my head in

        Liked by 1 person

  9. Wow Charlie Kauffman wrote a draft, that would be cool to see. I loved Waking Life and using the same technique for this one was a lot of fun. Agree that it’s up there with Blade Runner and Total Recall as best adaptation of Phillip K Dick’s works

    Liked by 1 person

    • Charlie Kaufman could definitely have added something to this, eh? I’d loved to have seen that. That said, Linklater still does great work here. It’s a solid flick.
      Cheers Vern! 🙂


  10. Dude. DUDE! I got a copy of this, and watched the blu-ray on my new 55 inch 200hz TV. 200hz baby, they say the eye can’t spot it, but I sure as shit can, it must be the epilepsy.

    But, I got lucky hunting 😉 So I put this on just as the mushies started to hit me… and goddamn. God. Damn. It got to the point where the crazy animation looked real, and when the movie finished everything in the room looked animated like the movie!!

    Crazy man. I need to re-read your review, and re-watch the movie sober, cos those visuals were too much for me to take in the story properly. It was nice to see Keanu in a good role too.

    Thanks for this, a brilliant recommendation mate.


    Liked by 1 person

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