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 Warning: You’ll probably need to watch A Scanner Darkly more than once. The first time to sit back awe-struck and slightly dribbling at the sheer originality of the manic, kaleidoscopic visuals. The second time to actually gain some kind of understanding of what’s going on. Playing like a graphic novel come to life, heavily under the influence of a cocktail of drugs, the film orbs and flickers between different realities—those as seen through ‘scanners’ or CCTV cameras, those of characters who are sober, and those of characters who are definitely not. Focussing on the familiar theme of ‘the war on drugs’, Philip K. Dick’s story is moulded perfectly by the hands of director Richard Linklater, whose creative new form of merging live action and animation, ‘interpolated rotoscoping’ (animating over the top of the film stock frame by frame, used for the first time in his film Waking Life back in 2001), is the ideal technique to blend ‘real-life’ and paranoid, drug-induced hallucination. It is also fitting that the majority of the cast have been heavily linked to excess in this area…

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The film is set ‘seven year from now’ in a society that is very much a Police State. It’s not important when ‘now’ is, only that the film is set in the very near future. The latest addictive drug to sweep the country, Substance D, has a quarter of the population hooked and is subsequently one of the government’s highest priorities. The agents working the substance D case are so undercover that their identities are unknown even to each other. Here comes the only real sci-fi aspect of Dick’s story—the ‘scrambler suits’.

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Each agent wears a ‘scrambler suit’ to work to protect their identity from other agents, and from various image recognition technologies. The suits work by scrambling sections of millions of different identities, so that the person wearing it never has the appearance of one specific person—the wearer becomes at once a nobody and an everyman. As one of the agents says during a presentation, ‘Let’s hear it for the vague blur!’. The suits are the focal point for what gradually becomes a metaphor for Bob Arctor’s (Keanu Reeves) fragmented identity.

Arctor‘s career as an undercover government agent has been going fine, until his bosses unknowingly hire him to investigate himself. Confused? We’ve only just begun. The plot and structure of the film meander exhaustingly throughout, but this is part of the intention. The result is a random, confused, drug-fuelled dreamscape that questions what’s ‘normal’ as we are thrown from one unreliable version of reality to another. Arctor is our narrator, providing a calm, cold voiceover not dissimilar to Harrison Ford’s in Blade Runner (another of Linklater’s adaptations of Philip K. Dick).

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Reeves is back on form in the film, and the addition of Winona Ryder, Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson and Rory Cochrane makes for an incredibly strong ensemble cast. The relationship between Arctor and drug-dealer Donna (Winona Ryder) seems as strange and unsure to the characters as to the viewers and Ryder gives a sympathetic and heartfelt performance as the coke-addicted emotion-phobic partner. Light relief comes in the form of weird and spaced-out interchanges between Barris (Robert Downey Jr.), Luckman (Woody Harrelson) and Freck (Rory Cochrane), who have an amazing on-screen chemistry. Rory Cochrane deserves a specific mention for the way in which he adjusts his acting style perfectly for the animated nature of the film. Creating a very stylised, overtly physical character, Cochrane’s Freck twitches and manoeuvres in such a way that really taps into the pulsating, trippy nature of the film.

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Yes, there’s a ‘twist’—and thank you Linklater for not making it too obvious—which is almost entirely unexpected, and yet another reason for at least a second viewing. It makes a welcome change from the blatant and basic lead-ups usually thrown onto our screens, and adds poignantly to the general feeling of wonderment as to what we are to understand as ‘reality‘.


As you’d expect, the anamorphic 1.85 widescreen transfer is flawless, so the viewer can focus all their attention on the bold visuals without interruption. The colours are sharp and there is no artefacting thanks to the interpolated rotoscoping techniques used to create the original prints.

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The English-language audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1with fairly random optional English, Arabic, Greek, Hebrew and Icelandic subtitles. Again, good quality audio, showing off Graham Reynolds fantastic soundtrack, which has probably been sorely overlooked next to the visuals.


The nature of the film means the extras are bound to be more intriguing than usual. For a change, the commentary is really captivating, with a great selection of voices including Keanu Reeves, writer/director Richard Linklater, producer Tommy Pallotta, author Jonathan Lethem, and, most interesting of all, Philip K. Dick’s daughter Isa Dick Hackett. Between them they discuss everything from the original ideas, to what happened on set, to Philip K. Dick’s personal life. The only thing lacking is the jovial chemistry of some commentaries—this is certainly on the subdued side, but the sheer amount of random discussion and information more than makes up for it.

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‘One Summer in Austen: The Story of Filming A Scanner Darkly’ is your typical making-of featurette, with on-set frolics and cast interviews. However the scenes shown are particularly interesting because it’s the first time we see any part of the film in its pure ‘live-action’ state. You can’t possibly watch the film without being completely blown away by the visuals and wanting to know how the effects are achieved - here is where the next featurette comes in. ‘The Weight of the Line: Animation Tales’ is a comprehensive guide and explanation of how the interpolated rotoscoping was achieved from the initial concept, to the different techniques for each character, to background and sheer numbers of animators involved. In addition there is the theatrical trailer, which, in hindsight, makes the film appear more action-packed than it actually is - the film gives the impression of more action because of the scratchy, vibrating nature of the animation. This is one of the only times where the extras deserve an extra viewing as well as the feature itself.

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It’s ironic that this weird, drug-induced carnival ride is, according to his daughter, the first novel Philip K. Dick wrote without the use of amphetamines. The story of hyper surveillance, drug abuse and bureaucratic hypocrisy is still incredibly relevant and, apart from the scramble suits, unearths a world that potentially exists already. And, of course, the animation technique is such a breakthrough—it’s great to see something so original in modern filmmaking, which will hopefully lead to further and more confident experimentation in animation and filming techniques in the future.