Weird Watch: ‘A Scanner Darkly’

Drew Dietsch

Part of the joy of being a fan is finding odd and obscure gems that you end up falling in love with. For every Star Wars, there is a Starcrash. For every Batman, there is a Condorman. At Fandom, we like hunting for offbeat and off-the-wall films and TV shows that might become your own secret treasures. Strap yourself in and expect the unexpected, because this week’s Weird Watch is Richard Linklater’s sci-fi thriller A Scanner Darkly. (Last week: Meet the Feebles)

“It is sometimes an appropriate response to reality to go insane.”

– Philip K. Dick, “VALIS

The science fiction stories of author Philip K. Dick have made their way to the big screen in multiple fashions. Though his contemplative and philosophical ideas may not be the focus of films like Total Recall or Minority Report, we still have Blade Runner introducing new converts to the wonderful novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? But of all the adaptations of Dick’s work, Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly feels the most faithful to its source material. Not just when it comes to fidelity to the written word, but also in representing the bizarre, brilliant, quirky and tragic voice that was uniquely Dick’s.

A Scanner Darkly tells the tale of Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves), an undercover narcotics agent of an all-too-real future. An all-seeing government constantly watches citizens. The establishment has squelched dissent thanks to nearly 20% of the population becoming drug addicts. These people are now lost in their self-defeating paranoia. Arctor himself is addicted to the brain-altering chemical Substance D. The drug begins to distort his perception of reality and his sense of self. Yes, you’ve seen the “undercover cop gets absorbed by his mission” movie countless times, but A Scanner Darkly isn’t that. This isn’t a crime drama or a police thriller. This is a frank and sobering look at why people use drugs and how current institutions are complicit in creating addicts.


Richard Linklater brings his inherent talent for naturalistic dialogue to the piece. Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, and Winona Ryder are pitch perfect as aimless outcasts who find communion in their addiction. There’s humor and heart, but through the entire piece runs a constant feeling of dread that can’t be shook.

All this sounds great, but what makes A Scanner Darkly a contender for Weird Watch? First off, there’s Linklater’s decision to use rotoscoped animation for the film; rotoscoping involves taking live-action film and painting over the images frame by frame. It creates a style that makes the events on-screen seem just a step outside of what we know as reality. It also allows for some great hallucinatory scenes like when Arctor’s druggie friend Freck (Rory Cochrane) sees a creature from between dimensions (see featured image) list off all of Freck’s sins since the beginning of his life. Or when Arctor sees his friends transform into giant insects, giving us this great image of a bugged-out Robert Downey Jr.:


There’s also the “scramble suit,” a disguise Arctor wears around his fellow police officers so his cover isn’t compromised. The suit constantly shifts to look like an endless number of different people. This confuses any scanning tech that might be used on the wearer. It’s a creative choice that some may find abrasive, but as Arctor’s psyche erodes, it’s also hypnotizing and thematically resonant. Audiences hadn’t seen this in film up to that point and it stands out as one of the movie’s visual highlights.


A Scanner Darkly is a small and personal story. It shows the harsh and uncomfortably honest results of the effect the War on Drugs has had on some people. The novel is considered a semi-autobiographical account of Dick’s own experience with drug usage and drug culture. It offers no easy answer, ending with a list of Dick’s friends who either died or were permanently damaged by addiction. It’s not only a Weird Watch because of the unusual way it’s presented — you either love or hate the animation — but also because it examines the strangeness of a society where recreational drug usage is both commonplace and criminalized. What a weird world that would be.

Read more in our regular Weird Watch series here.

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