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A movie directed by Richard Linklater

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An Addictive Thriller

  • Jan 21, 2009

WARNING: This review contains spoilers!


Based upon what may be Philip K. Dick's most personal novel, the film A Scanner Darkly is an awe-inspiring "science fiction" film directed by Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused and Waking Life). Linklater, who also wrote the screenplay, has done a remarkable job in staying as close as possible to Philip K. Dick's original story. In fact, out of all of the many films adapted or inspired by his work, A Scanner Darkly may be the most faithful. However, the film is far from flawless, but I'll get to the film's shortcomings later.

Keanu Reeves as... ?

What helps A Scanner Darkly and keeps it from becoming cliché is the unique look and feel of the film. Using a sophisticated form of rotoscoping, which is the process of shooting live-action footage and then animating over it, Linklater aids the story giving the entire film a hallucinogenic quality. This highly stylized look at first feels gimmicky, as though Linklater was trying to exploit the current trend of adapting comic books and graphic novels to the cinematic medium, but after multiple viewings I realized that this story almost requires this visual treatment in order to give us greater insight into the characters' damaged psyches.


What hurts the film is its inaccessibility upon its first viewing. When I first saw the film, I found the rotoscoped imagery to be distracting and I felt that it overwhelmed the story. However, upon a second viewing I began to admire Linklater's decision to use the rotoscoping process and that it actually enhanced the film's visceral intensity. Now having seen the film numerous times, I can appreciate the artistry that went into its making. It's a challenging film, from both artistic and technical perspectives, but that's what makes it exceptional. It grows on you, not unlike an addiction.

"What if they..." 


In the very near future, where everyone is under government surveillance, the world's population is lost in haze of drug addiction and paranoia. Bob Arctor, a hapless yet likeable drug addict, lives with his two friends, Barris and Luckman, who are also drug addicts. Their drug of choice is the instantly addicting Substance D, which causes, among other things, paranoia, hallucinations, and multiple personality disorder. Bob, his roommates, and his girlfriend Donna spend most of their time engaged in ridiculous conversations about sex, pop culture, and conspiracies, which may or may not be real. But a rift begins to grow between these friends as their paranoid delusions lead them to distrust each other.

Meanwhile, an undercover narcotics agent named Fred is monitoring the group trying to find the source of the Substance D epidemic. There's only one problem: Bob Arctor and Fred are the same person, though neither of them are aware of it.


What drives the film, what gives it an emotional resonance and propels the narrative is its cast. The film features Keanu Reeves as Bob Arctor, Robert Downey Jr. as James Barris, Woody Harrelson as Ernie Luckman, Winona Ryder as Donna Hawthorne, and Rory Cochrane as Charles Freck. The entire cast is extraordinary, especially when you take into consideration how carefully they had to gauge their performances for the sake of the rotoscoping process. If it weren't for that process the acting would seem completely over-the-top, but in this case the intensity lends itself perfectly to the film's aesthetic quality.

I could go into great detail analyzing each actor's performance, but I'd much rather you see the film and come to your own conclusions. However, I will say that  Keanu Reeves, whose monotone line readings and inexpressive facial features tend to undermine his abilities, gives a nuanced and multi-faceted performance that may be his best yet. Winona Ryder also gives one of her best performances in years, as does Woody Harrelson, who is lovably stupid as Luckman. Robert Downey  Jr., who gives a manic energy to Barris, is startling in his intensity, which borders on psychotic. And  Rory Cochrane is terrific as the drugged out, paranoid, schizoid Freck, who suffers from very bizarre hallucinations. As I've said, the cast is extraordinary.


A Scanner Darkly is a strange film that's difficult to describe. The film is amorphous and protean in its ability to shift from stoner comedy to thought-provoking science fiction, from social satire to darkly humorous character study.

The DVD special features include an audio commentary by Richard Linklater, producer Tommy Pallotta, Philip K. Dick expert Jonathan Lethem, Philip K. Dick's daughter Isa Dick Hackett, and Keanu Reeves, "One Summer in Austin: The Story of Filming A Scanner Darkly" documentary, "The Weight of the Line: Animation Tales" documentary, and a theatrical trailer.

The Cast Keanu Reeves as Bob Arctor Robert Downey Jr. as Barris Rory Cochrane as Charles Freck Woody Harrelson as Luckman Winona Ryder as Donna Keanu Reeves as Bob Arctor An Addictive Thriller An Addictive Thriller

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July 18, 2010
Another one I need to see and the sad thing is I have it.
July 18, 2010
And it's one that you need to watch at least twice.
February 03, 2009
I've passed over this one several times because I wasn't in the mood for "Dick". He does have one dominant theme that seems to permeate his stories--at least the ones that wind up being made into feature films; am I me, am I you or are you me? What's reality? And who can we trust? All outgrowths of the basic problem that if I don't know who I am how the hell am I supposed to be able to trust anything else I see or hear or think? TOTAL RECALL is sort of the ultimate Dick Flick.
April 03, 2010
Really? I always consider this and "Blade Runner" the quintessential Dick films.
April 03, 2010
BLADE RUNNER may be the most popular. I think they both kind of cop out on their endings. (I'm not talking about A SCANNER DARKLY)
April 03, 2010
I liked the ending of "Blade Runner", at least in the director's cut.
April 04, 2010
It's been so long...Is the director's cut the one where we are allowed to believe that Deckard is a replicant? Because he obviously is.
April 04, 2010
Yeah, that's the director's cut.
April 04, 2010
The original theatrical release had the happy ending then. That certainly wasn't in keeping with anythin Dick ever wrote.
April 05, 2010
Nope. He was too depressed for tagged-on happy endings.
April 05, 2010
He was a little more than depressed I'd say.
April 05, 2010
Well, yeah, he was a depressed, paranoid-schizophrenic, drug addicted nut! But he was a great writer, bless him!
April 05, 2010
That about covers it.
January 23, 2009
I really need to re-watch this. The style was very different and it could easily be dismissed as just another visual feast--but I know there are more to it because of its intricate plot. I saw this with a bunch of friends--distractions abound! thanks for the review.
April 03, 2010
Definitely worth the re-watch!
More A Scanner Darkly reviews
review by . November 02, 2008
A Scanner Darkly
To fully understand the movie, you'd have to read the book first. But to fully appreciate the movie, its best to have not read the book and have an open mind to the differences.     The plot: Charles Freck (Rory Cochrane) is covered in aphids. At least he thinks so. Freck hangs out with Barris (Robert Downey Jr.) and Luckman (Woody Harrelson) and Bob Arctor's girlfriend Donna (Winona Ryder).     What Bob's roommates don't know is that there is more to Bob …
review by . March 07, 2008
posted in Movie Hype
Pros: Interesting story and decent interpretation      Cons: Predictable and the acting was only so-so      The Bottom Line: It is ultimately predictable but the strength of the story (once you get into it) makes the predictability just a minor nuisance.      Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie''s plot.      A Scanner Darkly a Philip K. Dick novel adapted for the screen by Richard …
review by . February 01, 2007
The first thing that strikes you about `A Scanner Darkly' is the animation. Innovative from the first frame, the only comparisons I can come up with is an advanced, artful leap from `Adult Swim' from The Cartoon Network or the adults' version of `The Polar Express'. Easily more fluid than either, the animation at first may come off as unnecessary, flashy, or just plain irritating. But once you get your brain hemispheres adjusted, you realize there is real method to the madness. But, oh boy, what …
review by . December 27, 2006
posted in Movie Hype
Those who criticise this film for lacking in narrative drive are either missing the point or had been expecting something different. It is true that there is very little "plot" here (until the end), and much of the film involves sitting around the house, hanging out with Bob Arctor and his various friends and associates. The majority of the screen time in this film is devoted to establishing an atmosphere (and leaving a few hints about a larger plot) within which the central twist of the story will …
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About this movie


Starring Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Winona Ryder, Woody Harrelson
Directed by Richard Linklater
Writer: Richard Linklater (screenplay) Philip K.. Dick (Novel)
Based on the novel 'A Scanner Darkly' by Philip K. Dick
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