Still more lazy thoughts from this one…

A Scanner Darkly Film Review

a scanner darklyOnce again, dear readers, my esteemed blogger companion (Rachel of a Scientist Gone Wordy) and I have ventured into another of our parallel posts where we review and discuss a book at hand, and its film adaptation. She (with the speed reading ability) covers the literary material, and I tackle the celluloid version (since I have no such super-human powers). In this case (like in our first undertaking), it is another of the famed American writer/novelist Philip K. Dick‘s science fiction stories. A Scanner Darkly, adapted to the screen in 2006. Rachel’s review of the 1977 science fiction novel can be found here:

A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick

A brief synopsis of the film: In the not too distant future — only a few years from now… but who’s counting — the ongoing and decades old War on Drugs, which was started way back during Nixon’s presidency, has dragged the country down to a new level. The populace is in the midst of an epidemic involving the illegal and addictive narcotic known as Substance D, while government law enforcement has gone the totalitarian, surveillance-heavy, society route to eradicate the latest drug scourge. The story follows an undercover narcotics cop, Bob Arctor (code-named Fred), who is living with a pair of addicts in an attempt to obtain fresh intel on the dealers higher up the supply chain. However, the cop, now thoroughly addicted to Substance D, has begun to lose his hold on his own identity, whom he can trust, and the task at hand.

[spoiler warning: some key elements of the film are revealed in this review]

My review: When this film initially debuted in 2006, I’d admit it caught my eye…but not in a good way. Its color palette and the rotoscoping animation technique put me off visually via the film’s previews and trailers. Seemed way too distracting to hold my attention to the story. That’s what I thought, anyways. I held off until this week1 in watching the film. I now have to admit that A Scanner Darkly really did enhance the experience. The film’s use of scramble suits, the clever technology introduced by PKD for the undercover cops to remain completely anonymous when meeting the public, or in each other’s presence, wouldn’t have worked without the digital rotoscoping construct, in my opinion.

It also distinctly added to the masking of identity theme going on within the tale.


The film’s story of addiction and identity, and the dystopian future the War on Drugs has brought, seemed a showcase for drug-addled paranoia. The film’s tweaker mentality was on full display when the main characters all get together, or when they’re scheming on one another. Classic. All the while they’re being spied upon. Reminded me of what Joseph Heller wrote in Catch-22,

“Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.”

The drug users’ perspective, revealed in the film through the undercover cop’s deteriorating mentality, illustrated the combination of the after-effects, or rather toxicity, of the drug and the looking-over-your-shoulder psychosis it produced. To a certain extent, by the time the end credits arrive, you do feel like you’ve been on a drug trip.

“What does a scanner see? Into the head? Down into the heart? Does it see into me? Into us? Clearly or darkly? I hope it sees clearly because I can’t any longer see into myself. I see only murk. I hope for everyone’s sake the scanners do better, because if the scanner sees only darkly the way I do, then I’m cursed and cursed again.”

pkdIt brought a new slant to that world for me, or at least an aide-mémoire of my younger days. Its effect made it all the more personal. In contrast for law enforcement, their fears of everyone being a suspect have literally come true, along with the realization of losing the war, were displayed pretty clearly. With a doubt, something to note in the story. Frank can’t help losing himself in this midst.

The end results in Phillip K. Dick’s tale — everybody comes under scrutiny, and the audience received a good peek of what we might really expect down the road. Perchance, peeling back the veil to what’s already here. This author was often scarily prophetic in his yarns.

Up till 2010 and the time I wrote the review, though, I haven’t seen any of his previous films.

sjff_02_img0750Admittedly, Richard Linklater also did a good many things right for his film. Beyond a solid bit of direction, ee himself adapted the original work for the film’s screenplay. In fact, he used a good bit of the actors real historical background in casting the film so that it winked at those in the know among the audience. Keanu Reeves, he of the eternally good looks and wooden acting skills, did quite well as the undercover becoming ever more unstable in his assignment. Robert Downey, Jr. especially, two years before Iron Man changed the landscape for he and Marvel studios.

His former substance problems and manic behavior were well known (along with his tremendous acting talent), played his typecasting with an obvious witticism, along with a gloriously scene-chewing speed.

Woody Harrelson was less so, at least for me, here. His established traits are somewhat distracting to the film, I thought. Mainly when compared to where those attributes really shine, like in the film Zombieland. Although, I have to say I was done with Rory Cochrane’s character after the first 15 minutes, thank you very much. Winona Ryder on the other hand, more than rounds out the stable. Her Donna was the one that really surprised me in the story since she too is undercover law enforcement. Actually working Fred into a far larger investigation, but managing to display an unexpected humanity in her character.


Ultimately as a film, A Scanner Darkly was a very intriguing endeavor. Perhaps more so as a social commentary of how we as a country have handled drug abuse, in both technique and story-line. After my initial viewing, Linklater’s adaptation would be one I’d recommend. Plus, get me to view more of his work. This one for sure I’ll need to re-watch to better understand, maybe even appreciate further. There are some distinct Orwellian overtones in the PKD tale. Substantially, and byway of the draconian methods presented, in almost a Hydra-like fashion. Still, the film provided a lot of food for thought, and for that I have my blogging colleague to thank for suggesting the title.

“I believe God’s M.O. is to transmute evil into good and if He’s active here, he’s doing that now. Although our eyes can’t perceive it. The whole process is hidden beneath the surface of our reality. It will only be revealed later. And even then, the people of the future, our children’s children, will never truly know this awful time that we have gone through and the losses we took. Maybe some footnote in a minor history book, a brief mention with no list of the fallen.”

I am very much looking forward to reading Rachel’s take on how well it was adapted from the original novel and how that translation compared almost 30 years after it was written.

  1. For this film examination, since I didn’t obtain a copy of the A Scanner Darkly DVD to screen, I used Netflix’s streaming option and watched it on my computer. I had tentatively viewed things with it before, a few documentaries, and found the streaming, using Microsoft’s Silverlight technology, to be more than adequate. Rotoscope me shocked. At the time it was not streamed in High Definition, but was pristine enough. The irony today is that more material has been made available in HD, but A Scanner Darkly is no longer on Netflix’s streaming service. Still, an early step that hooked me on this delivery method. Even enjoyed the film while sitting by my desktop machine. Didn’t go over well with my wife, however… 

8 Responses to “A Scanner Darkly Film Review”

  1. Morgan R. Lewis

    I haven’t seen the film version yet. I did read the book several years ago, though. That is one amazingly bleak book. I had to deliberately choose lighter fare to read afterwards because it has a pretty depressive effect on a person. Powerful, though, especially PKD’s afterword, where he explains why he wrote it. As most SF fans know, PKD was a heavy drug abuser himself in his younger years, and by the time of A Scanner Darkly, he had come to realize how much harm it had done him and his friends, many of whom had died by that point (and he himself had been diagnosed with terminal liver damage).

    Liked by 1 person

    • le0pard13

      I can imagine reading the novel would. Excellent point about PKD’s history, Morgan. No doubt his personal connection with all this had a lastly effect. Thank you very much for the read and comment, my friend.


  2. J.D.

    This film continues to fascinate me and I love what Linklater did with it. He managed to capture the spirit of the novel and actually translate it fairly faithfully including the wonderfully emotional dedication at the end, which gets me every time.

    This certainly isn’t a film for everyone but if you like Philip K. Dick’s books, this is probably one of the more faithful adaptations of his work.

    Liked by 1 person

    • le0pard13

      Thank you very kindly, J.D. Yes, I think Linklater’s work continues to gain well-earned attention. I think I need to rescreen this one soon.



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