Cyberpunk Review » A Scanner Darkly

July 16, 2006

A Scanner Darkly

Movie Review By: SFAM

Year: 2006

Directed by: Richard Linklater

Written by: Philip K. Dick (Novel) Richard Linklater (Screenplay)

IMDB Reference

Degree of Cyberpunk Visuals: Medium

Correlation to Cyberpunk Themes: Medium

Key Cast Members:

  • Bob Arctor: Keanu Reeves
  • James Barris: Robert Downey Jr.
  • Donna Hawthorne: Winona Ryder
  • Ernie Luckman: Woody Harrelson
  • Charles Freck: Rory Cochrane
  • Rating: 8 out of 10

    A Scanner Darkly screen capture


    Overview: In a very faithful adaptation to Philip K. Dick’s story of the same name, Linklater treats us to an interesting, slow moving story about abuse – abuse of power, drug abuse, abuse fo friendships, and abuse of the self. While most of the publicity about Scanner Darkly is about the rotoscoping technique used, the story itself is good enough that it probably could have worked in live action as well. A Scanner Darkly is engaged in a slow-opening process – hopefully you all get to see soon in a theater near you.


    A Scanner Darkly screen capture


    The Setting: Seven years into the future, a drug known as Substance “D” has transformed society. People are divided into addicts and those who haven’t taken Substance “D.” Society is quickly collapsing. In response to this threat, the government has transformed the society into a surveillance state, where neighbors spy on neighbors, and personal freedoms have been minimized. Everything is organized for instant observation – license plates are now bar-coded, and security is all DNA based. Trust has all but vanished in the world where Scanner Darkly resides. In its place, we have people who are constantly concerned about each other’s ulterior motives, and think nothing of stabbing someone in the back if only to win short term gains.


    A Scanner Darkly screen capture


    The Story: Scanner Darkly takes place seven years into the future and follows the plight of a close-knit group of addicts living outside of Anaheim, California. Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) is works as a reluctant undercover police officer (called “Officer Fred” at work), who lives with group of addicts that he eventually needs to perform surveillance on. Bob no longer believes in what he is doing, but still goes through the motions. At work, all the police wear “scrambler suits” to ensure nobody knows who they are. As the story progresses, we get to see the absurd lives that each of the addicts lead. Bob’s girlfriend (Winona Ryder) is a coke addict who freaks out if touched; his friend Charles (Rory Cochrane) sees insects crawling over him at all times, and his two room mates are clearly fried beyond all recognition.


    A Scanner Darkly screen capture


    Unfortunately for Bob, his addiction is growing too. His grasp on reality starts to weaken as the hallucinations increase. He starts seeing his room mates as huge insects. Worse, one of his room mates (Robert Downey Jr.) visits the police department to narc on Bob. Bob, as the disguised Officer Fred, has the task of taking down his room mate’s statements and investigating them. As the movie proceeds, Bob becomes more disillusioned with his job and life, and begins to realize that he is losing his humanity.


    A Scanner Darkly screen capture


    An Excersize in Duality: Scanner Darkly sets a number of issues up in a duality. We have left brain – right brain separation as a side effect from extreme exposure to Substance “D,” we get surveillance and security opposing personal freedoms, and the two doctors treating Bob overtly represent the left and right hemispheres. Everything in Scanner Darkly is about dualities of tension, and the descent of humanity in the face of this tension.


    A Scanner Darkly screen capture


    The Paranoia: A Scanner Darkly delves into the paranoia mindset that develops when drug use combined with an out of control surveillance society has taken hold. Personal rights and individual freedoms are significantly subordinated in a society where the government is after the supposed drug barons. One begins to question, however, whether the drug barons themselves are just yet another tool by the government to gain complete control over the population. The idea of government abuse of power permeates virtually every scene. The ranting sessions within the drug addict group are all based on paranoid delusions about what the government is currently doing to them. Worse, some of their “paranoid delusions” end up being true!


    A Scanner Darkly screen capture


    Drugs Are Bad, K? Scanner Darkly pounds this message in as many ways as possible. Wanna screw up your perception? Substance “D” is for you! But don’t worry, its effects are not always permanent, just most of the time! Within the addict group, we see different people in various states of insanity. The message is clear – once you’re on this stuff, the descent into insanity is all but assured.


    A Scanner Darkly screen capture


    The Rotoscoping: The rotoscoping in Scanner Darkly works well as a device to create an atmospheric, otherworldly film, even though most of the scenes almost came off as red-neck central. Unlike Waking Life, where the hand drawn animation on top of live action is wildly uneven (on purpose) with the characters, for the most part the rotoscoping just gives it an ambiance. Also, the rotoscoping provides a wonderful base for the various hallucinations that happen in the course of the movie. Linklater’s rotoscoping technique seems to work best when there isn’t that much action on-screen. In some of the movement scenes (car riding, running, etc.), there is almost no difference between the rotoscoping and live action. There was also a lot of variances with the black lines around the faces – mostly this was pretty subdued, but in a few scenes, the black lines almost dominated the scene.


    A Scanner Darkly screen capture


    The Acting: For the most part, the acting is terrific in Scanner Darkly. Robert Downey Jr. especially shines, but Reeves’ performance fits perfectly for a man overtaken by events. Winona Ryder has some pretty solid moments (especially at the end), as does Woody Harrelson and Rory Cochrane. The better scenes usually involve Downey and another character involved in truly bizarre conversations. Some with Downey and Harrelson in particular are pretty funny.


    A Scanner Darkly screen capture


    The Bottom Line: A Scanner Darkly is a movie with great acting, interesting discussions and a very powerful ending. That said, some parts of Scanner Darkly come off as overkill (the drugs are bad part, for instance), whereas others could easily have benefited from more elaboration. Still, these are minor complaints, as the overall movie has terrific acting, a great score (by Radiohead), and an interesting, well constructed message. Fair warning though - this is NOT an action movie. The vast bulk involves people milling around and talking, without any real action ever taking place. As long as action isn’t necessary for you to enjoy a good cyberpunk flick, give Scanner Darkly a try.


    ~See movies similar to this one~

    This post has been filed under Dystopic Future Movies, Security-Surveillance State, 8 Star Movies, Animes, Cyberpunk movies from 2000 - 2009, Surreal Cyberpunk Movies, Movie by SFAM.


    July 16, 2006

    Case said:

    Great review, SFAM! I’m very much looking forward to seeing this…even moreso now. I was a big fan of Linklater’s similarly rotoscoped epic WAKING LIFE and “Darkly” is one of my favorite books, so hopefully, it’ll play the arthouse circuit around these parts before too long. How did you manage to see it? I know you were concerned that it wasn’t playing near you. What’s your secret? What are you holding out on us??

    SFAM said:

    Hi Case, my “I’m not reviewing this” post was more about me being bugged with Scanner Darkly’s limited release schedule. Apparently the DC area made the second cut, as I saw this movie on its release date here (Friday).

    The ending really is powerful - truly the whole movie almost comes together right at that moment.

    ETM said:

    I’m glad you liked it, SFAM, as this is one of my most anticipated films this, or any other year. Thumbs up for the review, will comment upon seeing said flick. ;)

    July 17, 2006

    Case said:

    “Apparently the DC area made the second cut, as I saw this movie on its release date here.”

    Lucky bastard…:)

    July 18, 2006

    Impius said:

    Yeah ASD hasn’t made it to tampa yet c(; . ;) however the 1st 24 min of the movie are out on the web, and watching that just made me want to see the movie more. But it does look very good, the issues that I had with the rotoscoped effect in Waking Life seem to be gone, it was making me sea sick. So hopefully there will still be a wider release of this and I’ll get to go see it in theaters.

    July 20, 2006

    Muad'Dib said:

    I’m going to see it next wednesday and my expectations are high :D
    I liked the book, though it was definitely not my favourite Dick novel.

    July 22, 2006

    SFAM said:

    Let me know what you all think of it when you see it.

    spikethebloody said:

    This is what I get for living in south. We watch interesting movies too! Well some of us do.

    July 28, 2006

    DannyV_El_Acme said:

    Got a pirated version, since it’s apparent it won’t get to PR anytime soon. I wish I didn’t have to do it, but movie distribution here sucks ass. We get Little Man two screens per theater, but no Scanner Darkly. I’m telling you, no justice.

    As for the movie, Jesus, I was starting to get paranoid watching the movie, it just makes you feel uncomfortable in the extreme. Great acting all around(Robert Downey Jr. SHINED), and there were some NICE details on the rotoscoping. For example, anybody notice how Rory Cochrane’s face and facial expressions were slightly deformed to give him a more cartoonish look? It kinda made it seem he was more insane. Ironic, considering RDJr. was just apeshit nuts on paranoia overdrive. OH! And the scramble suits are GREAT!!

    And the ending was just disturbing. It is really heartbreaking.

    The movie is just so great at really dragging you into its world. You really feel for these characters, and you don’t feel disgust, you feel pity. You pity that such intelligent(yes, INTELLIGENT) people are destroyed by their addictions. RDJr.’s character in particular shows an incredible intellect completely turned askew by paranoia and insanity.

    Bottom line, rocking movie.

    Muad'Dib said:

    I saw it the day before yesterday and pretty mich agree with you SFAM. Extremely faithful to the book, just a few shortages (?) here and there (which I cannot always understand - why for example did they leave out the conclusion of the bike-gear-story?)
    Nevertheless I liked it very much and will certainly buy it on DVD.
    If you are prepared to see a good but depressing Sci-Fi movie about drugs and don’t expect too much action you will probably like it.
    The visuals also were quite cool (even though I can’t see the neccessity of this Rotoscope-thing in the movie, but who cares).

    July 29, 2006

    Muad'Dib said:

    Oh, and I think it was only Thom Yorke, not Radiohead, who did the score. :D

    August 17, 2006 » Rare Philip K. Dick Interview said (pingback):

    […] Boing Boing posted a link to a rare Philip K. Dick interview from 1977 on YouTube that was released as part of the Scanner Darkly movie hype. PKD talks about break-ins to his house by government officials, and the relative low-standing of science fiction in the literary community. […]

    October 14, 2006

    Dimfuture.Net: Now, with Kung-Fu Grip! said (pingback):

    […] I wonder if anyone wept louder or longer than me at the spate of Philip K. Dick adaptations that have come out over the last few years. Sure, there was Blade Runner (and I’ll always adore Blade Runner’s marvelous visuals and pioneering sci-fi vision, despite its only passing acquaintance with Dick’s novel), but then came Ben Affleck in Paycheck, the gorgeous but unwieldly Minority Report, and, going further back, the goofy-but-lovable Total Recall and the intensely wasted effort of Scanners. And by Scanners I mean Screamers. Sorry, drank my lunch again. I’m still holding out hope that Scanner Darkly will be the one Dick adaptation to really get it right — although early reviews are encouraging, it still hasn’t come to my town, so I have no way of knowing. […]

    October 21, 2006

    Uther said:

    i havent read the book , shall i read it first or see the movie now?

    November 2, 2006

    mr skin said:

    Here is some funny news I just found about Winona Ryder:

    Winona Ryder’s “psychopathic tendencies” helped the actress land a starring role in director Daniel Waters’ forthcoming movie.

    Waters, who worked with the actress on the film Heathers, says Ryder was the perfect choice to play a psychopathic character in his new film, Sex And Death 101.

    He says, “I needed a psychopath who was sweet, warm, and funny - and that’s basically Winona. She’s like an Audrey Hepburn that’s been dropped off the table and has a crack in it.”

    November 18, 2006

    Majesco said:

    Although I have never read book, I’ve wanted see this movie since SFAM first published that review.

    And I had chance to see this movie yesterday at Istanbul Museum of Modern Art with couple of my friends. We both enjoyed the PKD’s marvelous story and Linklater’ rotoscoping technic-which I had never heard about /seen it before, what a shame.

    After seeing it I decided to read PKD’ book. And I am gonna read it very soon.

    thanks for your amazing review sfam.

    May 29, 2007

    randomrob said:

    Really captured the feeling of Dick’s prose. Spot on. For that reason, probably not entertaining for everyone…

    August 18, 2007

    Jess said:

    Excellent review and excellent movie, you just forgot one aspect of the duality nature presented in the movie. The whole thing was about Phillip Dick and he was writing about his drug experiences in the 1960s, as he pointed out himself he just did not know how to do it without using sci-fi themes. Phillip Dick is Bob Arctor!


    August 25, 2007

    Hugo said:

    When I first saw the previews for this I was worried. The A-list cast suggested that Hollywood had descended upon the film and sucked the life out of it. Also, bad experiences with ‘Minority Report’ left me worried that Hollywood would ‘Hollywood-ise’ it.

    Having watched it, I’m glad to say this wasn’t the case :D. Even though I haven’t read, ‘A Scanner Darkly’, I have read ‘Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep’ (a.k.a ‘Blade Runner’) and ‘Valis’ and must say that this film stays very true to the nature and tone of Dick’s books.

    I think the humour in it was especially good, as well as the ideas and themes (and it comes off as vaguely head-trippy which is always good :D). Top notch!

    January 23, 2008

    Ken said:

    I really liked the film… best PKD adaption yet. The only one I’ve seen that looked at the human side of his stories..

    About the drugs are bad thing. If I remember rightly the book ends with a list of his deceased, hospitalized and incurable friends all of whom succumbed to some drug or other. I thought the “drugs are bad message” was kind of central to the book. Drugs are good stupid fun (like the bike routine) but if your personality starts to change, all your friends take drugs, you live in a house full of dealers, your junkie girlfriend prefers sucking a pipe than you and you are having paranoids delusions then they can fuck you up… fair point I think ?

    SFAM said:

    Hi Ken, I definitely agree that both the book and movie get the “Drugs are Bad” message out fairly well.

    February 10, 2009

    Burnt_lombard said:

    This film definitely doesn’t glorify drug use.

    I just seen it today, and have no clue why I put it off for so long. I was pumped the moment I heard Linklater was behind this and going the same route as Waking Life. Such a unique, powerful film.

    October 15, 2010

    opium said:

    Even though it could be better with the storytelling, as it jumps some parts of the book, and Arctor’s drama isnt well explained, it still is a good book. I would give 8,5.. hehe

    December 2, 2010

    ZetKey said:

    This one is extremely booooring. I needed all my mental powers to watch Scanner Darkly until the end.

    February 15, 2011

    Hannah said:

    Actually, Scanner Darkly is not an anime, it´s not in the style of manga, and it´s made mainly with posterization of the frames made by camera.

    June 7, 2011

    spiralofhope said:

    God awful movie.

    June 3, 2012

    Papa said:

    Great story and acting and the visual effects are stunning. if anyone likes the drawing over film technique used you should definitely watch “waking life”. it isnt cyberpunk but it is a counter culture movie with various philosophic discussions and trippy visuals, centered around lucid dreaming. Waking Life and Scanner Darkly are worth watching for the visual effects if nothing else.

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