A Scanner Darkly (Widescreen Edition) (2006)

Actors: Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, Rory Cochrane, Winona Ryder
Richard Linklater
AC-3, Animated, Closed-captioned, Color, Dolby, Subtitled, Widescreen, NTSC
Region 1 (U.S. and Canada only)
Number of discs:

DVD Features:

  • Available Subtitles: English, Spanish, French
  • Available Audio Tracks: English (Dolby Digital 5.1)
  • Commentary by writer/director Richard Linklater, Keanu Reeves, producer Tommy Pallotta, author Jonathan Lethem, and Isa Hackett Dick (daughter of Philip K. Dick)
  • "One Summer in Austin: The Story of Filming A Scanner Darkly" featurette
  • "The Weight of the Line: Animation Tales" featurette
  • Trailer


By the late-1970s all that was left of the ‘Sixties counterculture was the drugs and none of the ideals; the lifestyle, but not the politics. Watergate, Vietnam, Charlie Manson and those Hell’s Angels killing that guy at the Rolling Stones concert had taken care of that.

In 1977 as George Lucas was bringing out a Space Opera on the big screen typical of the sort written in the 1930s, relatively obscure science fiction writer Philip K. Dick wrote A Scanner Darkly, a sad paean to his fellow Berkley radicals of the era.

It was a dark, funny, complex and disturbing novel about an undercover narcotics cop who is assigned to investigate his own civilian self. The ironic thing is that the cop’s mind is too fried on a new, highly addictive and deadly street drug known as Substance D to realize what is happening: because of his split personality disorder the narc never realizes that he is spying on himself . . .

One of Dick’s most autobiographical works, A Scanner Darkly is also one of the most underrated pieces of science fiction ever written. That it and Star Wars appeared in the same year is also ironic, proving again that celluloid sci-fi most of the time lags far behind its written counterpart: it would take almost another 30 years for Scanner to be adapted to the big screen.

A Scanner Darkly is probably the first real adaptation of Dick’s work. In previous film adaptations of his work, single ideas would be taken from the source material and something completely different done with those ideas. The 1979 film Blade Runner for instance bears little actual resemblance to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, its supposed source novel. The same goes for other Hollywood adaptations of Dick’s material such as Minority Report, Paycheck and Total Recall. (1996’s Screamers was probably the most faithful adaptation of Dick material before Scanner Darkly.)

However, when one thinks about it, it is remarkable that Scanner Darkly got made in the first place. An intelligent and oddball piece, it goes against Hollywood perceptions where sci-fi is seen as being “for the kids” which must have robots and space battles with lasers in it (on the “making of” documentary on the DVD most of the actors playing the roles admit to being “perplexed” by the film’s screenplay when they first read it).

Filmed by ageing Generation X’er Richard Linklater in a way similar to the director’s previous Waking Life feature, A Scanner Darkly takes live action footage over which traditional cell animation is added. The effect is arty, but at times can induce motion sickness in viewers.

THE DISC: Despite a small army of commentators on the audio commentary with anyone from star Keanu Reeves and director Linklater to one of Dick’s own daughters and a Dick “expert”, the audio commentary is often punctuated by silence as the participants seem unsure of what exactly to say about onscreen events. One half hour or so long “making of” featurette contains some interesting footage of Dick himself and is worth checking out. Fans expecting something more in-depth would probably be disappointed.

WORTH IT? The animation technique used is most likely the best way to have filmed the surreal material at hand, but the biggest problem is that Dick’s novel is difficult per se to adapt to another medium, in particular because many of its surprises depends on the very medium (i.e., the written word) it is created in. Ultimately, while the film has many moments of poignancy and even power, the book (as always) is better especially when it comes to creating a sense of paranoid dread and immersion in Dick’s fully realized world, only sketchily hinted at in the film - and is recommended instead.

RECOMMENDATION: Newcomers to the science fiction of Philip K. Dick even those who know his work from the various movie “based” on his work will probably be nonplussed and it is recommended that they preferably check out the novels themselves. For Philip K. Dick fans ( “Dickheads”?) the film works as a companion piece to the original novel – a timely reminder of what a truly great writer Philip K. Dick was . . .



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