A Scanner Darkly (2006)

Compared to most adaptations of the works of legendary sci-fi author Philip K. Dick (Total Recall, Blade Runner, Next, to name just a few), the animated film A Scanner Darkly is extremely faithful to its source material. But that’s not necessarily a good thing.

A Scanner Darkly (2006)

Keanu Reeves is “Fred”, a narcotics agent operating in Anaheim, California “seven years from now”, according to the opening caption. “Fred” has been assigned to locate the source of a new street drug called Substance D, a pill that leads to extreme brain damage in its users. As part of his assignment, he goes undercover as Bob Arctor, a junkie who lives with two junkie friends (Robert Downey Jr. and Woody Harrelson) while trying to make time with a junkie chick (Winona Ryder).

A Scanner Darkly (2006)

At the start of the movie, all four of them are already living with the unpleasant side effects of Substance D: namely, hallucinations and massive paranoia. Eventually, the drug causes a schism in Fred’s brain and he develops a split personality: as he diligently studies video surveillance of Bob Arctor, he slowly starts to forget that he is in fact Bob Arctor. In essence, he ends up narcing on himself.

The original 1977 novel was adapted by Richard Linklater, and just like Linklater’s Waking Life, A Scanner Darkly consists entirely of rotoscoped animation. Live-action footage of the cast was painstakingly traced over by a team of animators over the course of 18 months. The movie certainly looks amazing, right down to the stylized animated version of Keanu’s patchy beard, but in the end, the technique doesn’t prove to be all that necessary to the story.

A Scanner Darkly (2006)

I will say one thing for the rotoscoping: it allows the filmmakers to realize one of the most unfilmable concepts from the book: The “scramble suit”, which all undercover operatives wear to protect their identities while out in public. When looking at someone wearing a scramble suit, all you see is a constant shuffling of facial features: one person’s eye here, another person’s mouth there, and so on. It’s a disorienting, trippy visual, and who needs drugs when you can just watch the scramble suit?

A Scanner Darkly (2006)

Linklater probably seemed like a natural fit for this movie, given it’s a film about stoners, or more specifically, a film about stoners having endless stoner conversations. From his very first film Slacker, Linklater has shown a fondness for filming everyday people having lengthy, pseudo-intellectual conversations. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean he knows how to make these conversations all that interesting to watch.

I give him kudos for hiring actors with their own real life drug problems: Woody Harrelson (arrested for growing pot), Winona Ryder (busted for shoplifting, blamed it on painkillers), and Robert Downey Jr. (no explanation necessary). And when good actors are onscreen together doing a script that speaks to their own personal troubles, you expect the magic to happen and sparks to fly off the screen. Unfortunately, every scene sort of meanders around, with much of the dialogue delivered without much intensity.

A Scanner Darkly (2006)

This is odd, considering a lot of the script is taken verbatim from the book, and the book is often very funny. I can only conclude that the cast didn’t have a whole lot of chemistry. I would guess this is due to one particular weak link, but to be polite I won’t say who, other than to note that not even the rotoscoping can make Keanu Reeves all that expressive.

Those who haven’t read the book and only know Philip K. Dick’s rep for serious sci-fi are bound to be disappointed. Other than the scramble suit and a few other futuristic doodads, the movie could just as easily take place in modern-day California. In fact, watching it seven years later, it already seems dated; when “Fred” spies on his own alter-ego, it seems like a quaint riff on Bush-era warrantless wiretapping. (Though, the topic certainly has seen a resurgance of late. As Bob and Company drive around in cars with license plates displaying bar codes instead of numbers, I could only think of this recent story.)

A Scanner Darkly (2006)

Linklater has said he used rotoscoping on A Scanner Darkly because he felt there was a serious lack of animated films made specifically for adults. I appreciate the sentiment, but I do wish the technique and the thousands of man-hours had been reserved for a film that wasn’t so frustratingly low-key.

Still, the movie is worthwhile viewing for fans of the book, because in the end it’s a pretty faithful adaptation. Though, ultimately, A Scanner Darkly might be all the explanation we need for why most PKD stories generally don’t get faithful adaptations.

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  • danbreunig

    Thanks for the tip, Doc O’B.–I’ll skip this one. Normally I love book movies that are within 90-95% accuracy, but I’m not all that familiar with Philip K.D., so this would be lost on me anyway. But the main reason is simply because 2000s era rotoscoping creeps me right out. Not all rotoscoping like 1980s or even 1930s–just the more recent thing like this.

    A cool note I forgot to add: that’s my first car up there!–bought ten years after it came out.

  • maarvarq

    I thought this movie was pretty boring, and the scramble suit was one of the dumbest concepts I’ve ever heard, only in the story so that PKD could use it for his trademark confusion of identity schtick. A real-life narcotics agent would have a life expectancy of about a minute in public in one of those – they may as well be under a neon sign saying “I am a Narc!”

    • PhysUnknown

      Is the suit for being in public, or just around other officers in the police station? I’ve read the book and watched the movie, and I honestly don’t remember. I thought the suits were so that officers couldn’t see informants, and undercover officers wouldn’t have their cover blown by perps who might be around.

      I agree, wearing one of those in public would just be a beacon to anyone looking to take out a narc. While my memory of the details isn’t the best, I do seem to recall only undercover cops using them. If they were something that various people used at various times, then I could see them being used in public with less danger.

      • maarvarq

        Well, Winston says in his review “The “scramble suit”, which all undercover operatives wear to protect their identities while out in public.”, and the plot, such as it is, shows why a suit which conceals your identity from your work colleagues is a stupid idea, but I don’t care enough about this boring incoherent mess of a film to go back and check.

  • Thomas Stockel

    I remember seeing this movie and not being all that impressed. Oh sure, I thought it was cute that they hired actors with drug problems…and actors who act like they have drug problems. But one thing I kept wondering was, why do people take Substance D? Does it make people feel good? Feel high? People smoke pot, shoot up heroin and snort cocaine to feel better or to put them in a different mental state. What does substance D do that would make people risk such severe brain damage?

    • It’s not made that clear, but I’m guessing it’s a hallucinogen, going by the guy in the beginning who imagines bugs crawling all over him, and how Keanu sees Robert Downey turn into a giant bug. But yeah, to some degree, it does feel like the characters are taking it for the sole purpose of getting addicted to it.