235. A SCANNER DARKLY (2006)

“I think it was probably the strangest script I ever read.”–Robert Downey Jr.

“I was very confused by the script at first, it’s a bizarre kind of story…”–Woody Harrelson



FEATURING: , , Rory Cochrane

PLOT: In the near future, an estimated twenty percent of the American population is addicted to a drug called “Substance D.” “Fred,” an undercover agent, is posing as Bob Arctor, hanging out with a small-time group of users, hoping to locate a high level supplier. Fred, who is becoming more and more addicted to substance D and is being watched closely by police psychologists concerned about possible brain damage, grows increasingly paranoid, especially when one of Arctor’s roommates goes to the police and accuses the plant of being a terrorist.

Still from A Scanner Darkly (2006)


  • Philip K. Dick (1928-1982) was a fascinatingly weird figure, a counterculture science fiction author and the man responsible for the stories that were adapted into movies like Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, and others. He was also a heavy user of amphetamines (and, some say, LSD) in his youth; in his later years he became paranoid, and may in fact have been living with some form of mental illness. In 1974, after taking sodium pentothal for an impacted wisdom tooth, Dick began seeing visions involving pink beams of light, the sense of having lived a previous life as a persecuted Christian in the Roman era, and communication from a super-rational intelligence he dubbed “VALIS.” To Dick’s credit, he never surrendered to these delusions altogether; he remained rational enough to write coherent (if paranoid) novels.
  • Dick’s novel “A Scanner Darkly” was written in 1977 and set in 1992. It was based on the author’s own experiences as a drug addict, and was dedicated to casualties of drug abuse (the author’s roll call of those “punished entirely too much for what they did” is included before the movie’s end credits).
  • wrote an unproduced adaptation of “A Scanner Darkly,” and  was also reportedly interested in the property.
  • The animation technique used here is rotoscoping, where actual footage is filmed and then “painted” over by animators (in this case, with the aid of computer software, although in the earliest days of the technique a team of artists would hand-paint each individual frame of film).
  • Filmed in a brisk 23 days, but post-production (i.e. the rotoscope animation) took 18 painstaking months to complete.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The “scramble suit,” the undercover cloaking device of the future which is “made up of a million and a half fractional representations of men, women and children.” These “fractional representations” flicker across the surface of the suit, masking the the wearer’s identity by changing him into a “vague blur” of constantly shifting identities. The effect is eerie and disorienting, but unforgettable.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Aphids everywhere; scrambled identities; alien presiding at a suicide

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A Scanner Darkly is a paranoid, dystopian meditation on self-destruction—both personal and social—told as a sci-fi parable about an addictive, mind-rotting hallucinogen. For extra weirdness, the entire movie is rotoscoped to create a squirmy, synthetic reality.

Original trailer for A Scanner Darkly

COMMENTS: Hollywood has long been attracted to the works of cult sci-fi author Philip K. Dick, but only to their surfaces. The author’s epistemological mindbenders about characters who don’t know whether they’re humans or replicants, or whether their memories are real or implanted, have proven to be adaptable (with the addition of chase scenes and ample use of munitions) as blockbuster sci-fi thrillers starring Harrison Ford and Arnold Schwarzenegger. But until A Scanner Darkly, Hollywood was only interested in simplified, high-concept, plot-driven scripts that discarded Dick’s antisocial philosophizing for action scenes followed by an a-ha! conclusion that satisfactorily wrapped up all the plot’s mysteries. But the center of Dick’s best work, really, is a skeptical investigation of reality. His protagonists find themselves trapped in mysteries which uncover conspiracies, and conspiracies behind conspiracies, and which, when they probe deeply enough, eventually lead them doubt their own identities. In a Dick story, the question becomes not whether the characters are being lied to by the powers that be—they are, as a matter of course—but whether they are even capable of discovering the ultimate truth at all. This approach undoubtedly stemmed from Dick’s natural intellectual disposition, but it seems to have been exacerbated by his massive drug intake. Dick literally believed, at times in his life, that he was under surveillance, not merely by the Nixon administration, but also by space aliens, and by God Himself. If you take a sci-fi geek and pump him full of so many amphetamines that even Elvis would cry uncle and turn narc, you get Philip K. Dick.

For a time in the early Seventies, Dick opened his house up as a crash pad for junkies, stoners and drop-outs—a crew very much like those who buzz around Bob Arctor’s burnt-out wreck of a suburban ranch home in A Scanner Darkly. The meandering, paranoid conversations of Freck, Barris, and Luckman show the druggy camaraderie of those who bond over a common hallucination. To these characters, everything is a plot; a bicycle is missing gears because the “albino shapeshifting lizards” who fenced it are planning to sell them the extra parts piece by piece. Bob Arctor, Dick’s stand-in, is alienated from his own crowd, because he is hiding a horrifying secret: although he scarfs as much Substance D as any of his roommates, he’s actually an undercover narcotics agent. Meanwhile, in his “real” life, his undercover identity is hidden from his police co-workers as a matter of protocol—a technique whose sanity comes into question when officer Fred is assigned the job of spying Bob Arctor, his own alter-ego. Self-examination has never been so ironically literal. Not only that, but concerned police psychologists explain to him that he may be experiencing a split between the hemispheres of his brain, one that leads to “cross-chatter.” They tell him that he’s seeing things wrong: that the illustration he reports to be a sheep is actually a dog. If this is true, and his own perceptions can’t be trusted anymore thanks to the damage the drug has wreaked on his brain, how can he expect to do his job?

So when Arctor sees his pal Luckman turn into a bug before his very eyes, it’s probably not really happening. But then, he could have figured that one out on his own, without the police psychologists. More troubling is when he briefly sees a one night stand turn into Donna, his Platonic girl-friend who is also the target of his undercover investigation. Those around him may not be who they appear to be; and why should they? Arctor is not who he is appears to be to them, either. Everyone is investigating and informing on everyone else. Linklater’s decision to rotoscope A Scanner Darkly makes the film visually interesting, but it also works as a metaphor. Not only is Scanner‘s visual world liquid and druggy, simultaneously familiar and strange in the way someone on hallucinogens might perceive it, but it introduces the concept of reality as something that is layered. We know that what we are seeing on the screen is not the real image, but one that’s been been painted over and obscured, purposely scrambled by the author. The rotoscoping removes us one level further from an already receding reality—a technique that’s Dickian in its very essence.

It’s refreshing, for a change, to see major Hollywood stars in a truly weird movie. Winona Ryder is a welcome presence, even if her role is the token stoner girl is a little underwritten and forgettable. Rory Cochrane overacts (appropriately so) as the lost cause space case whose skin crawls with imaginary aphids, while Woody Harrelson has no trouble whatsoever with his role as a naive longhair thoughtlessly tramping down the path to pharmaceutical oblivion. As the perpetually scheming Barris, Robert Downey Jr. makes the greatest impression, reeling off gonzo monologues with a natural affinity and oafish overconfidence that makes you think the actor might have actually been a tweaked-out, speed-snorting blowhard at some point in the past. Barris is a drugged out know-it-all who thinks he can make cocaine from Solarcaine and a silencer from a toilet paper roll, but who in reality doesn’t even understand how an multi-speed bike works; still, he always has a  smooth rap prepared to paper over any public failure. Keanu Reeves, after publicly humiliating himself as an out-of-his-depth Jonathan Harker in Dracula and starring as the forgettable Johnny Mnemonic, once seemed doomed to be shine only as the bogus half of Bill and Ted. Here, actually does a fine job as the protagonist. Reeves is still no Shakespearean actor, but given a properly limited role, his bland slacker handsomeness and deadpan delivery can be an asset. He excels at (and this is going to sound like an insult) a kind of low-key befuddlement that is perfectly suited to the chronically confused Bob Arctor. To put a more complimentary spin on it, Reeves here conveys a burnt-out melancholy and loss that, by the end, is actually quite moving.

A Scanner Darkly is many things, but on its simplest level it is an examination of drug abuse. Dick, and Linklater, capture the lifestyle of the addict—the squalor, the paranoia, and yes, the good times, too—in a way that’s unsentimental and mournful. Drug abuse is devastating to the individual, but perhaps it’s even more harmful to society. Basing his story on his personal experiences during Nixon’s War on Drugs, Dick’s novel projects a future where the citizenry is under constant surveillance by representatives of law and order, and where everyone is a potential informant. “This is a world progressively getting worse,” Barris opines, and for once, he may be the voice of reason. Nixon’s War on Drugs became Reagan’s War on Drugs, which became, gradually, our status quo, a state of never-ending, never-questioned War. In A Scanner Darkly, there are cameras on every street corner, cameras in satellites, authorities sitting in front of banks of monitors watching our every move. The nod to government control—the Scanner, the omnipresent camera and the authority operating it—is right there in the title. And what does the scanner see? Paraphrasing 1 Corinthians 13, Arctor wonders if maybe he should surrender to the scannner’s authoritative vision, because “I can no longer see into myself. I see only murk. I hope for everyone’s sake the scanners do better.”  This is a warning against the temptations of tyranny, yes, but on a more touching and personal level, it’s a confession from someone who has traveled to the outer limits of reality searching for answers—and come up blank.


“…the film is weirdly fascinating in its own maverick way.”–Sean Axmaker, Seattle Post-Intelligencer (contemporaneous)

“The film is quite entertaining in a bent sort of way, and if you like weird, you should definitely see this.”–Eric Lurio, Greenwich Village Gazette (contemporaneous)

“Possibly one of the strangest movies ever made, ‘A Scanner Darkly’ is worth seeing if only for the eye-bending animation.”–Linda Cook, Quad City Times (contemporaneous)


A Scanner Darkly (U.S) – There’s not much left at Warner Brothers’ U.S. site besides the trailer

A Scanner Darkly (France) – Includes a still gallery, wallpapers featuring the characters, and animated messenger icons (all in French, of course)

IMDB LINK: A Scanner Darkly (2006)


A Scanner Darkly – Festival de Cannes – The Cannes film festival page for A Scanner Darkly (which played in the “Un Certain Regard” section) includes a link to the French language pressbook

Securing the Substance: Richard Linklater on his adaptation of ‘A Scanner Darkly’ –  Interview with Linklater by the Austin Chronicle‘s Marc Savlov

Trouble in Toontown –  “Wired” article on the filmmakers’ struggles with the complex animation

A Scanner Darkly Trailer: A Civil War Of The Mind – Contest-winning fan-made alternate trailer for the film

The Drugs Did Work – Essay about Dick’s drug use in the context of “Scanner” from Philip Purser-Hallard of The Guardian

A Scanner Darkly Artists – The movie’s art department created their own website, with links to the artists’ homepages and favorite websites (no Scanner art, however)


“A Scanner Darkly” – The 1977 Philip K. Dick novel

DVD INFO: Warner Brothers released an A Scanner Darkly DVD (buy) in 2006, the same year as its theatrical release. It includes the trailer, two featurettes of about 20 minutes each (“One Summer in Austin,” on the filming, and “The Weight of the Line,” describing the animation process). The DVD’s biggest draw was the commentary track, with an impressive lineup of talking heads: director Linklater, star Reeves, producer Tommy Pallotta, Isa Dick Hackett (one of Phillip K.’s daughters, and the administrator of his literary estate), and Dick expert Jonathan Lethem.

A Blu-ray with the same features (buy) followed a few months later. In 2010, Warner released a Blu-ray/DVD combo set (buy); according to one report, the “One Summer in Austin” featurette was missing from an extras lineup that was otherwise the same (buyer beware; no extra features at all are advertised).

A Scanner Darkly is also available on-demand (rent or download).

(This movie was nominated for review by Caleb Moss, who wrote “I was thinking that the movie A Scanner Darkly by Richard Linklater, based on the novel by the great weird science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, would be a great add to the queue.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

7 thoughts on “235. A SCANNER DARKLY (2006)”

  1. It was so cool to see this movie widely released in theatres. It’s not typical to witness a druggy, animated, experimental film full of A-list stars like this on the big screen. Great movie, great review!

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  3. I love the deadpan comments about RDJ and Woody Harrelson. It’s good to see a proper Dick movie, and I hope RDJ still has some weirdness left over after he leaves the Marvel machine.

  4. An interesting essay by Stanislaw Lem on the reality-bending qualities of Phil Dick’s work: http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/backissues/5/lem5art.htm

    It doesn’t mention “Scanner” (which at the time hadn’t been written yet) but it makes for a good appendix nevertheless.

    The essay was written about a year after Dick sent a letter to the FBI claiming that “Stanislaw Lem” was really a team of Communist agents. I don’t know if Lem was aware of the letter at the time (probably not), but according to later accounts, he didn’t take it personally, and chalked it up to Dick’s psychosis.

    The romantic idea of madness as a stimulus for creative work is obviously bullshit. There are no upsides to mental illness, just like there aren’t any upsides to diabetes or cancer or herpes. But I wonder if Dick might be an exception. Would he have written so convincingly about disintegrating reality if his own reality hadn’t been disintegrating?

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