Film: A Scanner Darkly

Cover image

A Scanner Darkly

Director: Richard Linklater
Distributor: Warner Home Video

Set in a not-too-distant future where America has lost its “war” on drugs, Fred, an undercover cop, is one of many people hooked on the popular drug, Substance D, which causes its users to develop split personalities. Fred is obsessed with taking down Bob, a notorious drug dealer, but due to his Substance D addiction, he does not know that he is also Bob.

Based on a classic novel by Philip K. Dick. Starring Keanu Reeves (“Constantine,” “The Matrix” trilogy), Academy Award-nominee and Golden Globe-winner Winona Ryder (“Girl, Interupted,” “Mr. Deeds”), Academy Award and Emmy-nominee and Golden Globe-winner Robert Downey Jr. (“Good Night, And Good Luck” “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang”), and Academy Award and Golden Globe-nominee and Emmy-winner Woody Harrelson (“North Country,” “The People vs. Larry Flynt”). Directed by Academy Award-nominee Richard Linklater (“Before Sunset,” “Dazed and Confused”). Filmed in live-action, and then animated using the same critically acclaimed process that Linklater used in his previous film, “Waking Life.”


How well you respond to Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly depends on how much you know about the life and work of celebrated science fiction writer Philip K. Dick. While it qualifies as a faithful adaptation of Dick’s semiautobiographical 1977 novel about the perils of drug abuse, Big Brother-like surveillance and rampant paranoia in a very near future (“seven years from now”), this is still very much a Linklater film, and those two qualities don’t always connect effectively. The creepy potency of Dick’s premise remains: The drug war’s been lost, citizens are kept under rigid surveillance by holographic scanning recorders, and a schizoid addict named Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) is facing an identity crisis he’s not even aware of: Due to his voluminous intake of the highly addictive psychotropic drug Substance D, Arctor’s brain has been split in two, each hemisphere functioning separately. So he doesn’t know that he’s also Agent Fred, an undercover agent assigned to infiltrate Arctor’s circle of friends (played by Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder, Rory Cochrane, and Robert Downey, Jr.) to track down the secret source of Substance D. As he wears a “scramble suit” that constantly shifts identities and renders Agent Fred/Arctor into “the ultimate everyman,” Dick’s drug-addled antihero must come to grips with a society where, as the movie’s tag-line makes clear, “everything is not going to be OK.”

While it’s virtually guaranteed to achieve some kind of cult status, A Scanner Darkly lacks the paranoid intensity of Dick’s novel, and Linklater’s established penchant for loose and loopy dialogue doesn’t always work here, with an emphasis on drug-culture humor instead of the panicked anxiety that Dick’s novel conveys. As for the use of “interpolated rotoscoping”—the technique used to apply shifting, highly stylized animation over conventional live-action footage—it’s purely a matter of personal preference. The film’s look is appropriate to Dick’s dark, cautionary story about the high price of addiction, but it also robs performances of nuance and turns the seriousness of Dick’s story into…well, a cartoon. Opinions will differ, but A Scanner Darkly is definitely worth a look—or two, if the mind-rattling plot doesn’t sink in the first time around. —Jeff Shannon

Barnes and Noble

Some films have cult status written all over them. Shot in live action with an A-list cast and then transferred into an animated feature via the technically complex “rotoscope” process, this scrupulously faithful adaptation of a Philip K. Dick novel is a dazzling, if disturbing, tour de force. Director Richard Linklater, employing the same animation technique he first used in 2001’s Waking Life, has captured the essence of Dick’s dystopian tale and its obsession with identity crises, drug-fed paranoia, and government surveillance on an Orwellian scale. Set in an Orange County suburb in the near future, A Scanner Darkly posits the emergence of a highly addictive drug known as Substance D (the “D” stands for “dumbness, despair, desertion, and death”). Seemingly innocuous homeowner Robert Arctor (Keanu Reeves), the amiable host to hangers-on Jim Barris (Robert Downey Jr.) and Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson), works as an undercover narcotics agent but has become addicted himself. While romancing drug dealer Donna Hawthorne (Winona Ryder) in an attempt to learn her supplier’s identity, Arctor is ordered to run surveillance on his own home: One of his guests is suspected of being Donna’s top customer. Linklater’s unusually dense screenplay and fleet narrative style never coddle the viewer—repeated screenings gradually reveal even deeper layers to this dark, innovative sci-fi thriller. Ed Hulse

Related Works

Album:A Scanner Darkly: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

A Scanner Darkly: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

Various Artists

Book:A Scanner Darkly

A Scanner Darkly

Philip K. Dick

Bob Arctor is a dealer of the lethally addictive drug Substance D. Fred is the police agent assigned to tail and eventually bust him. To do so, Fred takes on the identity of a drug dealer named Bob Arctor. And since Substance D—which Arctor takes in massive doses—gradually splits the user’s brain into two distinct, combative entities, Fred doesn’t realize he is narcing on himself.

Caustically funny, eerily accurate in its depiction of junkies, scam artists, and the walking brain-dead, Philip K. Dick’s industrial-grade stress test of identity is as unnerving as it is enthralling.

Views: 687 • Modified: • Elapsed: 0.019 sec