A Scanner Darkly (2006)
A Scanner Darkly (2006)

Genre: Sci-Fi Thriller Running Time: 1 hr. 40 min.

Release Date: July 28th, 2006 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Richard Linklater Actors: Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Winona Ryder, Woody Harrelson, Rory Cochrane, Melody Chase




riter/director Richard Linklater established a bold, jarring, and brilliantly unique animated style for his previous film, “Waking Life.” He then incorrectly believed he should employ that same technique for subsequent projects. “A Scanner Darkly” becomes that perfect example of a production that would have been infinitely more enjoyable without the distracting, interpolated, rotoscope-animation imagery Linklater more effectively developed for a completely different endeavor.

Fred (Keanu Reeves) is an undercover agent who has been assigned to penetrate a small group of drug dealers to get to someone higher up the ladder – or so he believes. James Barris (Robert Downey Jr.), Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson), and Donna Hawthorne (Winona Ryder) are his associates, primarily dealing with a futuristic drug called Substance D. Fred’s infiltrator alternate personality, Bob Arctor, becomes increasingly more addicted to Substance D as he uses his façade to enmesh himself in the lifestyles of his roommates and girlfriend. Eventually, the drug becomes so overpowering that he loses touch with reality, acquiring increasingly debilitating difficulties deciphering what is real and what is mere hallucination.

Downey’s infamous familiarity with offbeat rants about various mind-boggling subjects offers hilarious comedic moments to break up the strangeness of the story and environment. A relatively faithful adaptation of the novel of the same name, “A Scanner Darkly” introduces Philip K. Dick’s characteristic macabre and frighteningly peculiar worldview and innovations; the book is something of a morality tale on the negative impacts of drug abuse, and the ever popular theme of government manipulation and control over its people. One of the more engaging inventions is a camouflage suit, worn by all of the undercover agents at the office to hide their identities from one another, while a multi-eyed alien from another dimension, envisioned by Charles Freck (Rory Cochrane as the least involved member of the group) during an attempted suicide overdose, poses a brief sequence that requires something other than actors emoting.

The film serves up enough random and unexplained situations that as each scene progresses, the conclusion becomes increasingly elusive. A few sections are confusing, while others seem mismatched, but it’s designed with intentionality; when everything comes together at the end, it’s difficult not to be satisfied with the results. But the most disappointing aspect of the film is the wholly unnecessary animation. Time-consuming, crafted by remarkably talented artists, and innovative by itself, the added special effect is enormously nonessential; this film could have been a very intriguing, dark, science-fiction noir without it. Instead, the look is bothersome, taking viewers out of the various futuristic concepts and away from the seriousness of the scenarios. Even if the animation was intended to create a distressing and more surreal feel, to match the outlandish settings and fantastic world engulfed by hallucinogenic drugs, it’s meaningless in the scope of the storytelling. If only Linklater could one day release the entire movie in its unaltered, live-action form – or if screenwriters Charlie Kaufman and Terry Gilliam, both of whom originally had their hands on adapting the famous thriller, weren’t pushed aside by Linklater’s ill-fitting vision.

– Mike Massie

  • 7/10