A Scanner Darkly

A Scanner Darkly

2006, R, 100 min. Directed by Richard Linklater. Starring Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder, Rory Cochrane.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., July 7, 2006

It’s back to the future for Richard Linklater in his animated film version of Philip K. Dick’s 1977 acclaimed novel, A Scanner Darkly, a near-30-year-old work of prescient science fiction, whose film setting is seven years in the future. In other words, events in the film are happening in the great big now, similar to the way they occurred in the past, will unfold in the future, and always will be as long as there are governments, and citizens, and drugs that fuel the paranoaic fears intrinsic to all sides of the equation. The look of the film expands on the technique of interpolated rotoscoping from live-action video that Linklater and company used to animate his film Waking Life.

Animating the film proves to be a terrific strategy, as it enhances the story’s mood of squinty surveillance and ubiquitous uncertainty. Nothing can be trusted to appear as it is, no one can be trusted to be who he or she claims. The film’s central figure, Bob Arctor (Reeves), is a drug dealer who also takes huge quantities of Substance D – a lethally addictive drug about which it’s said, “You’re either on it or haven’t tried it.” Bob is also one of the manifestations of Fred, the government agent who is assigned to spy on Bob and his friends. Bob is essentially conducting surveillance on himself. To what extent he’s even aware of his deeply divided identity is uncertain. Then there’s also his (amusingly cast) Substance D-using roommates Jim Barris (Downey Jr.) and Ernie Luckman (Harrelson); another longtime user and bug-haunted pal Charles Freck (Cochrane); and Bob’s sometimes girlfriend Donna Hawthorne (Ryder), who is also suspected of dealing.

The plot becomes very dense and confusing as the overall paranoia mounts, and there’s no clarity as to who’s spying on whom or what’s real and what’s drug-induced. In this regard, the movie, like Dick’s book, is one of the best depictions ever offered of the drug-addled state. However, its accuracy doesn’t fully compensate for the viewers’ experience of confusion while watching the film (although a second viewing, which, granted, shouldn’t be necessary, does sharpen comprehension). The constant patter of these characters is amusing and provides lots of flavor (at times, it’s almost as if these chattering creatures have crept in from Linklater’s Slacker rather than this cutting-edge science-fiction work), but as a whole, the film has too little character and/or plot development to sustain narrative interest.

What A Scanner Darkly excels at is mood and tone, and Dick’s mixed-up story about there being no difference between cops and criminals in a world of pervasive surveillance is as cautionary a tale today and tomorrow as it was 30 years ago. Terrifically good performances are turned in by the cast, especially by Downey Jr., who owns the screen in every one of his scenes, and a suitably trippy music score by Austin’s Graham Reynolds also supplements the film’s tone. As the title implies, there’s a certain opacity to A Scanner Darkly, but at times it can be as naked as the lunch on the end of your fork.

For an interview with Richard Linklater, including more on the labor-intensive animation process which was conducted right here in Austin, read "Securing the Substance," July 7.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More A Scanner Darkly
Totally Total Providence
Totally Total Providence
Animator Paul Beck presents A Scanner Darkly at Alamo Drafthouse Mueller

Sean L. Malin, Aug. 25, 2017

More Richard Linklater
Richard Linklater's Memories of the Moon in <i>Apollo 10½</i>
Richard Linklater's Memories of the Moon in Apollo 10½
The filmmaker's childhood in space race-era Houston recalled through Austin-made animation

Richard Whittaker, March 25, 2022

Behind the Scenes at the Centre Pompidou's Tribute to Richard Linklater
Behind the Scenes at the Centre Pompidou's Tribute to Richard Linklater
An American in Paris

Richard Whittaker, Nov. 29, 2019

More Richard Linklater
Following Linklater's <i>Dream</i>
Following Linklater's Dream
Richard Linklater: dream is destiny finally opens in Austin

Josh Kupecki, Aug. 28, 2016

That Eighties Film
That Eighties Film
How Everybody Wants Some!! re-created history

Richard Whittaker, April 7, 2016

More Richard Linklater Films
Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood
Linklater’s charming animated daydream of space race Houston

Trace Sauveur, March 25, 2022

Where’d You Go, Bernadette
Cate Blanchett steals away with what’s left of her dreams in Linklater’s coming-of-middle-age comedy

Marjorie Baumgarten, Aug. 16, 2019

More by Marjorie Baumgarten
SXSW Film Review: The Greatest Hits
SXSW Film Review: The Greatest Hits
Love means never having to flip to the B side

March 16, 2024

SXSW Film Review: The Uninvited
SXSW Film Review: The Uninvited
A Hollywood garden party unearths certain truths

March 12, 2024


A Scanner Darkly, Richard Linklater, Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder, Rory Cochrane

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle