"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Friday, September 30, 2011

A Scanner Darkly

“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.” – Bob Arctor

Over the years, many films have been made based on the science fiction novels by Philip K. Dick – some good (Blade Runner and Minority Report), but mostly bad (Paycheck and Next). However, they all share a common trait: they only remotely resemble their source material. David Cronenberg recounted a story about how he began adapting the short story, “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” for a Hollywood studio and when he handed in his screenplay, an executive complained that it was too faithful to the source material. They wanted something like Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) for Arnold Schwarzenegger. Cronenberg wasn’t interested in doing that and left the project, which became Total Recall (1990). This explains why none of Dick’s material has been accurately translated into film until A Scanner Darkly (2006).

It was adapted by filmmaker Richard Linklater, not the first person you’d think of when it comes to science fiction but he had two things going for him: he was a fan of the book and he was willing to make it independently, keeping the budget low enough that he could have creative control over the material. He was also able to assemble a very impressive cast that consisted of Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, and Winona Ryder. However, his choice to utilize rotoscoping animation (where animators basically draw over live action footage) was not embraced by everyone and ended up causing Linklater all kinds of headaches in post-production. That being said, the style of animation he employed was well suited for the film’s various drug hallucinations and in realizing the scramble suit technology.

Dick’s semi-autobiographical book was first published in 1977. It was a fictionalized account of his experiences with the 1970’s drug culture. Between 1970 and 1972, after his fourth wife had left him, he had a rotating group of predominantly teenage drug users living semi-communally at his home in Marin County. At this time, he had stopped writing completely and became hooked on amphetamines. A turning point in Dick’s life came in early ‘72 when he delivered a speech at a Vancouver science fiction convention entitled, “The Android and the Human.” The speech was the genesis of recurring themes and motifs that would appear in A Scanner Darkly. Around this time, his home was allegedly broken into and his papers were stolen, which fueled the paranoid vibe prevalent in the novel.

The book is about a man named Bob Arctor, who lives in a house with several other drug addicts. He is also Agent Fred, an undercover police officer assigned to spy on Arctor’s house. He protects his true identity from his fellow junkies and from the police as well – a requirement of narcotic agents is that they remain anonymous to avoid corruption. While under the guise of a drug user, Arctor has become addicted to Substance D, a strong psychoactive drug that originates from a blue flowering plant. He is also romantically involved with Donna, a drug dealer whom he plans to expose as a high-level dealer of Substance D. Arctor’s chronic use of the drug results in the two hemispheres of his brain to function independently and the book depicts his gradual disconnect from reality. Is it real or is it Substance D?

The film is set seven years in the future in Anaheim, California where 20% of the population is considered addicts. When we first meet Arctor/Fred (Keanu Reeves) he’s already struggling with his addiction to Substance D. He is addressing a local chapter of law enforcement officers and speaking about the dangers of and the war on D. Partway through his prepared speech, he veers off script and the tone of his talk shifts to a melancholic, defeated vibe, which ends things on an awkward note. He is also wearing what is called a scramble suit, which allows him to avoid being discovered by the latest voice and facial detection technology by constantly changing his appearance so that he looks like a “constantly shifting vague blur.” The film’s rotoscoping animation is perfect for realizing the suit’s technology as we see Arctor’s image constantly changing in dazzling kaleidoscope fashion.

After shedding the scramble suit, Arctor adopts his Fred persona and contacts Donna Hawthorne (Winona Ryder), his drug connection and girlfriend, to score some narcotics. We soon meet his friends and fellow drug users: James Barris (Robert Downey Jr.), a motor-mouthed conspiracy theorist; Charles Freck (Rory Cochrane), a twitchy paranoid-type who has clearly done too much Substance D; and Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson), an aggressive junkie. Arctor hopes to get close enough to Donna and discover her supplier. Can I just say what a delight it is to see the likes of Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder bounce off each other in the same scene? For example, one day Barris comes home with an 18-speed bicycle for only $50 and Luckman points out that it is in fact an 8-speed bike, which sends Barris into a tizzy as he tries to figure out what happened to the “missing” gears. It’s an amusing scene as Ryder plays straight man to the excitable Harrelson and the indignant Downey. The comic timing of the latter two actors is excellent.

Downey’s Barris, with his endless supply of elaborate conspiracy theories and paranoid ramblings about “covert terrorist drug” organizations, evokes some of the more eccentric character in Linklater’s Slacker (1991) and he would not look out of place in that film. Only Downey could impart the large chunks of dialogue Barris spouts so fast and intelligibly while also making it entertaining. It’s how he emphasizes certain words or drags one out for effect that is so fun to watch. In certain scenes Linklater wisely winds Downey up and lets him cut loose. This is particular evident in the banter between Barris and Luckman, which provides A Scanner Darkly with much-needed moments of levity so that we are not overwhelmed by the bleak lives of these characters.

Against such colorful actors like Downey and Harrelson, Reeves wisely acts low-key, only taking center stage in the scenes with minor supporting characters where Arctor is the focus. Reeves’ increasing dazed and confused expressions convey the effects Substance D is having on him. Arctor is losing his grip on reality, which is exacerbated by having to juggle two different identities. As he says at one point, “Now, in the dark world where I dwell, ugly things and surprising things, sometimes wondrous things spill out at me constantly and I can count on nothing.” Reeves has always been an easy target, his acting criticized or rejected outright but I always felt that his strength was reacting off of other actors. At times, he is the perfect blank slate for others to imprint on and this is why he is perfect for this film. His character is supposed to be observing drug users and reporting back to his superiors with his findings.

No longer the A-list darling she was in the 1990’s, Winona Ryder has wisely appeared in a number of independent films that she feels passionately about. She fits in seamlessly with this eclectic cast as the rather enigmatic Donna. She has good chemistry with Reeves while also conveying a vulnerability as Donna’s true nature is revealed towards the end of the film. As Ryder has gotten older and more experienced as an actress, her performances have improved. She seems more comfortable in her own skin. The easy-going nature of Linklater’s style of filmmaking clearly rubbed off on her as she delivers a loose performance devoid of most of her usual acting affectations.

At a certain point in the film, Arctor thinks to himself, “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.” These thoughts are conveyed via voiceover narration and echo his fear of losing identity. He is experiencing a split personality and is told that the two hemispheres of his brain are competing against one another largely due to the effects of Substance D. The theme of examining and trying to recover one’s own identity is a prevalent theme in Philip K. Dick’s fiction and this is no more apparent than in A Scanner Darkly. The horrific part of the story is that Arctor loses a sense of who he is. Drugs have destroyed his life and those around him. In a nice touch, Linklater includes an abridged version of the afterword of Dick’s novel where he lists those nearest and dearest to him who died or were permanently damaged through drug use. It ends things on a sobering yet poignant note as Linklater drives the point home on just how personal the book was to Dick. His novel and the film show the dehumanizing and punishing effects of drugs. As he puts it, “This has been a story about people who were punished entirely too much for what they did.”

Richard Linklater began thinking about adapting A Scanner Darkly while talking to producer Tommy Pallotta before they made Waking Life (2001) together. Initially, he had toyed with adapting another Dick novel, Ubik, but stopped early on because of a rights issue and he “couldn’t quite crack it.” He moved onto Scanner Darkly soon after because he loved the book more and felt he could make a film out of it. According to Linklater, the challenge in adapting Dick’s novel was capturing “the humor and exuberance of the book but not let go of the sad and tragic.” He was not interested in turning the novel into a big budget action thriller as had been done in the past with some of Dick’s other works because he felt that Scanner Darkly was “about these guys and what they’re all doing in their alternate world and what’s going through their minds is really what keeps the story moving.” He related to the dysfunctional makeshift family of characters that was similar to his twenties spent in Austin. He wanted to animate the film much as he did with Waking Life because he felt that there was very little animation targeted for adults.

Linklater wrote the screenplay for A Scanner Darkly after Waking Life came out. After completing School of Rock (2003), he told Pallotta he wanted to make Scanner Darkly. It was important to Linklater that Dick’s estate approved of his film. Pallotta wrote a personal appeal to Russ Galen, the Dick estate’s literary agent who in turn shared it with the late author’s two daughters, Laura Leslie and Isa Hackett. However, they weren’t too keen on “a cartoon version” of their father’s novel. After the high profile adaptations of Minority Report (2002) and Paycheck (2003), they had taken a more proactive role in evaluating every film proposal, including unusual projects like Linklater’s. Pallotta told them that Linklater’s take would be a faithful adaptation of their father’s novel. They read the screenplay and liked it. They then met with him to discuss their respective visions of Scanner Darkly. Laura and Isa felt that the novel was one of their father’s most personal stories and liked that Linklater wasn’t going to treat the drug addiction/abuse aspects lightly. It was important to the filmmaker that he keep the budget under $10 million – that way he would have more creative control, remain faithful to the book and also make it as an animated film.

For the dual roles of Bob Arctor/Fred, Linklater thought of Keanu Reeves but figured that the actor would be burnt out from science fiction after making The Matrix trilogy. Robert Downey Jr. was attracted to the project when he heard that Reeves was going to star and Linklater to direct. He thought that the script was the strangest one he had ever read. Linklater wrote the role of Charles Freck with Rory Cochrane in mind. The actor was interested but didn’t want to recreate his Dazed and Confused (1993) role. Woody Harrelson and Winona Ryder both agreed to do the film based on the script. Although, for the actress, she had a personal connection to the material – her godfather, counterculture guru Timothy Leary, had been friends with Dick, as was her father. Her and Reeves felt so passionately about the project that they agreed to work for the Screen Actors Guild scale rate plus any backend profits.

Linklater assembled the cast for two weeks of rehearsals in Austin, Texas before principal photography began in order to fine tune the script and get input from the actors. The shooting script became a fusion of Linklater’s take on the material, the novel and the actors’ input. Principal photography began on May 17, 2004 on a budget of $6.7 million and lasted six weeks. To prepare for their roles, Cochrane came up with his character five minutes before he got on the elevator to work while Downey memorized his dialogue by writing it all out in run-on sentences, then converting them to acronyms. Meanwhile, Reeves relied on the novel, marking down each scene to its corresponding page.

Finding Arctor’s house for the film proved to be a challenge with the filmmakers looking at 60 houses before they found the right one, located in southeast Austin. The previous tenants had left a month prior to filming and left the place in such a state that production designer Bruce Curtis had to make improvements so that it looked like Arctor’s run-down home. Linklater actually shot a lot of exteriors in Anaheim, California (where the story is set) and then composited them into the Austin footage during post-production. Dick’s daughters visited the set during filming and spoke with the principal cast and crew members. They made Laura and Isa feel like they were a part of the production. Since everything would be animated over later, makeup, lighting and visible equipment like boom microphones were less of a concern. However, cinematographer Shane Kelly carefully composed shots and used a color palette with the animators in mind. Sometimes they would show up to the set and tell Kelly what they needed.

After principal photography was finished, A Scanner Darkly was transferred to Quicktime for a 15-month animation process known as interpolated rotoscoping. It allowed the animators to paint over the live-action footage so that they didn’t have to hand-draw each line in every frame. The computer connected fluid lines and brush strokes across a wide range of frames. The technique differed from Waking Life in that the “one scene could be wildly different than the one that followed but on this film, we were always thinking in terms of a graphic novel that would have a similar design throughout,” said Linklater in an interview. It took up to 500 hours to animate one minute of film with 30 people working full-time every day.

To say that it was a trying process for Linklater is an understatement: “I know how to make a movie, but I don’t really know how to handle the animation.” The filmmakers used the same animation software that was utilized on Waking Life, created by MIT graduate Bob Sabiston. He updated it for A Scanner Darkly. Most of the animators were hired locally with only a few of the 30 people having moviemaking experience. Six weeks into the process and only a few animated sequences were completed while Linklater was off filming Bad News Bears (2005). Sabiston had divided the animators into five teams and split the work amongst them.

However, there was poor communication between the teams and the uniform animation style that Linklater wanted was not being implemented. After almost two months, some animators were still learning the software and he became frustrated with the lack of progress. In late November 2004, the head of Warner Independent Pictures Mark Gill asked for a status report. It was not good. There were no finished sequences as the entire film was being animated at once as opposed to from beginning to end. Under pressure, some animators worked 18-hour days for two weeks to produce a trailer and this seemed to appease Gill and Linklater.

Sabiston and his team were falling behind schedule and reportedly asked for more time, money and staff. This created tension and one Friday in February 2005, while Sabiston and his four-person core team were strategizing at a local café, Pallotta changed the locks and seized their workstations, replacing him with two local artists, Jason Archer and Paul Beck. The studio increased the film’s budget to $8.7 million and gave Linklater six more months to finish. Pallotta took charge of the animation process and instituted a more traditional Disney-esque production ethic: creating a style manual, having strict deadlines and breaking the film up into even smaller segments. The animation process lasted 15 months. On the post-production problems, Linklater said, “There’s a lot of misinformation out there … changes took place during the early stages of us really getting going on this that had everything to do with management and not art. It was a budgetary concern, essentially.” I think it’s safe to say that after everything he went through on Scanner Darkly we aren’t going to see Linklater make another animated film any time soon.

Originally, A Scanner Darkly was supposed to be released in September 2005. However, due to the lengthy post-production delays, a test screening was scheduled for December and that went reasonably well with a temporary soundtrack that was entirely comprised of Radiohead songs. A revised release date was set for March 31, 2006, but Gill felt that there wasn’t enough time to mount a proper promotional campaign and the date was pushed back to July 7th, putting it up against Pixar’s Cars and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.

A Scanner Darkly received mixed to positive reviews. In his review for the New York Observer, Andrew Sarris wrote, “In the final analysis, A Scanner Darkly provides a stylish peek at the future, which will probably be even more discouraging than the present—or have you stopped looking at the news too? Mr. Linklater emerges once again as the Austin auteur par excellence, even if A Scanner Darkly is set in a ratty precinct of Orange County.” Empire magazine’s Kim Newman gave the film four out of five stars and praised Linklater’s take on the material: “For a start, he is the first director since Ridley Scott to take one of Dick’s major novels as a source; moreover, he might well be the first director ever to feel Dick is worth a faithful adaptation rather than the source for a handful of cool ideas that could be stripped while the rest of the matter got thrown away.” The Washington Post’s Desson Thomson concurred: “He infuses Scanner with the goofy spirit that enlivened his early films, Slacker and Dazed and Confused. His comic scenes are funny on the surface, certainly, but they're symptomatic of a civilization that's disintegrating.” In his review for the Village Voice, J. Hoberman wrote, “What's extraordinary about Linklater's animation, computer-rotoscoped in the fashion of his 2001 Waking Life, is just how tangible the Dickian labyrinth becomes.”

The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis wasn’t totally sold on Linklater’s decision to utilize rotoscoping animation: “Rotoscoping makes certain sense for a film about cognitive dissonance and alternative realities, though both the vocal and gestural performances by Mr. Reeves, Mr. Harrelson and, in particular, the wonderful Mr. Downey make me wish that we were watching them in live action.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “C-” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “In A Scanner Darkly, we're watching other people freak out, but the film is maddening to sit through because their freak-outs never become ours.” In his review for The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw wrote, “The movie itself is often startling and engrossing, but the question of what the heck is going on, and why, is never entirely absent from your mind.”

The rotoscope animation adds to the druggy atmosphere of A Scanner Darkly and is particularly effective during the moments when the characters have drug-induced hallucinations. The animation isn’t photo-realistic by any means but rather more impressionistic in nature, creating the notion that none of what we are seeing may be real, that it may exist only in Arctor’s fevered, drug-addled imagination. However, the style of animation limited the film’s mainstream appeal – that, and the stigma of animation being for kids only made it one of the more expensive cult films in recent memory. Linklater’s refusal to water down the material and make it more palatable for a mainstream audience also accounts for its marginalized status while also making it one of the most faithful and best Philip K. Dick adaptations ever put on film.


  1. Great review on this one, J.D. I enjoyed the background of the film adaptation. As you know, I was hesitant to watch this because of the rotoscope animation technique employed. But, afterwards approach really added to the film once I got beyond the initial scenes. It's a great PKD story, and as you say, does seem quite personal when all is said and done. Thanks for this.

  2. Hi there, I come across your blog via le0pard13's post from today. I've been meaning to check out this movie, so thanks for the reminder, I've moved it to the top of my Netflix queue!

  3. Found this post via 'Wonders in the Dark' and it sure was an engrossing read of my favourite PKD movie adaption so far. You may be interested to know that 20 years after a Brian Aldiss serialised script of UBIK or The Three Stigmata of Palmer - for the old BBC TV fell through due the death of ethos and the coming of the pen pushers, the Beeb are now co-producing 'The Man in the High Castle'. With Ridley Scott producing. Here's a link:


    Maybe there is a chance to do it justice, they are at least keeping it in the '60s.

  4. Hmmm.

    A very well-written and interesting review J.D..

    I don't know very much about the film. Of course, I have a better handle on it thanks to you.

    I've never been a big fan of this animating rotoscoping style. It's a real turn off.

    I may hvae to give it a chance based on your thoughtful review.

    The adaptation of Dick's work is often weak, but you make a case for it as one of the best out there. That's intriguing to me to be sure.

    All the best,

  5. J.D. this was just amazing - the amount of detail you poured into this really just blew my mind. I love the works of PKD and this is definitely my favorite film adaptation. This is one for the Instaread, just so I can read it again later after I've re-watched the film!

  6. le0pard13:

    I agree that the animation really lends to the tripped out, druggy vibe of the film. Once you get used to the animation it actually enhances what is going on in the film.

    Thanks for stopping by and for the kind words.


    Thanks! I hope you dig the film.

    bobby J.:

    Thanks for stopping by!

    I did know about about Aldiss/UBIK link. Fascinating! I have heard about THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE adapation and have high hopes for it. With Scott producing it should be visually interesting if nothing else.
    October 3, 2011 9:25 PM

    The Sci-Fi Fanatic:

    Thanks for the compliments, my friend.

    Don't let the rotoscoping animation scare you away. After the first initial scenes, you get used to it and settle in and focus on the characters, story, etc. As I said above, it actually enhances the story and creates a unique atmosphere.

    I hope you give it a shot sometime.


    Thanks! I'm glad you enjoyed my review. As you can tell, I'm a big fan of this film and the book. I really thought Linklater did it justice. I'd love to see him tackle another one.

  7. This sounds like a difficult film to make, and I admire Linklater for sticking with his vision.

    Also, I realized while reading your review that I have NEVER read any Philip K. Dick's books. Not sure how that happened, but thanks to your passionate post I'll be looking for him in the library. Thanks!

    1. Yeah, I don't think Linklater will be returning to animation any time soon.

      You are more than welcome and thank you for the kind words. PKD is an interesting writer and much of his stuff is fueled by his personal obsessions. He is definitely worth checking out.

  8. I'm a huge fan of PKD. His take on reality, by whatever influences helped him along, made him a writer who I felt was a sympathetic soul to my own skewed mind in my 20's. I only wish more of his books could be adapted to film. Still haven't seen how they did with the recent Man in the High Castle. (I'm afraid, admittedly, because it is one of my favorites.) Good review.

    1. I've seen the pilot ep. of MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE and it is very good. I haven't read the source material yet but I plan to.


  9. I remember the animation of this as being amazing. Great choice for the blogathon.

    1. Thanks! Yeah, the animation is really unique and stands out and fits the subject matter.

  10. Very interesting and exhaustive review!
    I really like this film for his originality (the animation complements well the story) and the faithfulness to the source material.

  11. Great review! Thanks for joining the blogathon!