The United States has lost the war on drugs. Substance D, a powerfully dangerous drug that causes bizarre hallucinations has swept the country, and approximately 20% of the total population is now addicted. In response, the government has developed an invasive, high-tech surveillance system and a network of undercover officers and informants.
Bob Arctor is one of these undercover agents, assigned to immerse himself in the drugs underworld and infiltrate the supply chain. Sometime in the past, Arctor was abandoned by his wife and two children, leaving him alone in a now-rundown suburban house in Anaheim, California; the house has since been repopulated by Arctors two drug-addicted, layabout housemates: Luckman and Barris. The three spend their days intoxicated and having long, paranoiac conversations. At the police station, Arctor maintains privacy by wearing a "scramble suit" that constantly changes every aspect of his appearance and he is known only by the code name "Fred." Arctors senior officer, "Hank", and all other undercover officers, also wear scramble suits, protecting their identities even from each other.
Since going undercover, Arctor himself has become addicted to Substance D and he has befriended the main woman he has been spying on: a cocaine addict and Substance D supplier named Donna. Arctor hopes to purchase large enough quantities of Substance D from Donna that she is forced to introduce him to her own supplier, but he has also developed seemingly unrequited romantic feelings towards her.
At work, Hank orders Arctor to step up surveillance on Donna and her associates; however, Arctors house is now at the center of his own investigation, since this is where Donna and the other addicts in her and Arctors life now spend most of their time. Hank names Bob Arctor as the suspected ringleader, and thus orders Arctor to spy on himself. Arctor, therefore, has to even more carefully plan his double life, though his prolonged use of Substance D is damaging his brain, causing him to sometimes forget his own identity. Meanwhile, the justified paranoia of Arctors housemates reaches extreme levels, and Barris secretly communicates to the police his exaggerated belief that Donna and Arctor are terrorists; Barris unknowingly conveys this information in the presence of Arctor himself, whose identity at the time is hidden behind his scramble suit.
After Barris supplies the police with a faked recording allegedly proving his claims about Donna and Arctor, Hank orders that Barris be held on charges of providing false information. After Barriss arrest, Hank reveals to Arctor that he has deduced him to be the true identity of "Fred" by a process of elimination. Arctor seems legitimately surprised and repeats his own name in a disoriented, unfamiliar tone. Hank informs him that the real purpose of the surveillance was to catch Barris, not Arctor, and that the police were deliberately increasing Barriss paranoia until he attempted to cover his tracks. Hank reprimands Arctor for becoming addicted to Substance D, and warns him that he will be disciplined, likely with a few months of penal labor. Hank "phones" Donna, asks her to take Arctor to New-Path, a corporation that runs a series of rehabilitation clinics, and Arctor, who is rapidly becoming more disoriented, leaves Hanks office, cursing Hank aloud. Afterwards, Hank enters the locker room and removes his scramble suit, revealing his true identity to the audience: Donna. At the New-Path clinic, Arctor experiences the symptoms of Substance D withdrawal, including more severe brain damage. He mindlessly repeats what others tell him and utters mostly simplistic responses.
Some time later, Donna (revealed to be another false name) converses with a fellow police officer, Mike, and the audience learns that New-Path is responsible for the manufacture and distribution of Substance D; ironically they use victims of the drug to tend their crops, since (being nearly mindless) they can be trusted not to reveal New-Paths secret. Donna expresses her growing ethical aversion to their police work, in which they deliberately selected Arctor—without his knowledge—to become addicted to Substance D all along; his health was sacrificed so that he might eventually enter a New-Path rehabilitation center unnoticed as a genuine addict and collect incriminating evidence of New-Paths Substance D farms. Donna and Mike debate whether Arctors mind will recover enough so that he grasps the situation and returns from serving his sentence with substantial evidence to shut down New-Path.
In the final scene, New-Path gives Arctor a new name and sends him from the clinic to a labor camp at an isolated New-Path farm, where he spots rows of blue flowers hidden between rows of corn. These flowers, referenced throughout the film, are the source of Substance D. As the film ends, Arctor hides a blue flower in his boot, apparently prepared to hand it over to the authorities during his upcoming Thanksgiving respite, though it is not at all clear whether he has recovered enough of his mental faculties to do so.
The end credits feature an abridged version of the afterword of Dicks novel, in which Dick lists people he knew who have suffered serious permanent physical or mental damage (brain damage, psychosis, pancreatic trauma, etc.) or death as a result of drug use. Dick includes his own name on the list, as "Phil", a victim of permanent pancreatic damage.
Linklater adds another name to the credits and dedicates the film to the memory of Louis H. Mackey, an influential philosophy professor at the University of Texas at Austin; he had appeared in two of Linklaters previous films. Mackey died in 2004.Keanu Reeves as Bob ArctorRobert Downey, Jr. as James BarrisWoody Harrelson as Ernie LuckmanWinona Ryder as Donna HawthorneRory Cochrane as Charles FreckLisa Marie Newmyer as ConnieDameon Clarke as MikeJason Douglas as New-Path Farm ManagerMarco Perella as Donald
Originally, Richard Linklater toyed with adapting the Philip K. Dick novel Ubik but stopped early on because he was unable to obtain the rights and he "couldnt quite crack it". He began thinking about A Scanner Darkly, another Dick novel while talking to producer Tommy Pallotta during the making of Waking Life. Linklater liked A Scanner Darkly more than Ubik and felt that he could make a film out of it. According to Linklater, the challenge was to capture "the humor and exuberance of the book but not let go of the sad and tragic". Linklater was not interested in turning the book into a big-budget action thriller as had been done in the past because he felt that A Scanner Darkly was "about these guys and what theyre all doing in their alternative world and whats going through their minds is really what keeps the story moving". He wanted to keep the budget under $10 million so that he could have more creative control, remain faithful to the book, and make it an animated film.
After completing School of Rock, Linklater told Pallotta that he wanted to make A Scanner Darkly next. It was important to him that Dicks estate approve his film. Pallotta wrote a personal appeal and pitched a faithful adaptation of the novel to Russ Galen, the Philip K. Dick estates literary agent who shared it with the late authors two daughters (Laura Leslie and Isa Hackett) who own and operate their fathers trust. Dicks daughters were not too keen on "a cartoon version" of A Scanner Darkly. After high-profile adaptations, Minority Report and Paycheck, they took a more proactive role in evaluating every film proposal, including unusual projects like Linklaters. They read Linklaters screenplay and then met with him to discuss their respective visions of A Scanner Darkly. They felt that it was one of their fathers most personal stories and liked that Linklater was not going to treat the drug aspects lightly, that he wanted to set it in the near future and make it right away.
For the dual roles of Arctor and Fred, Linklater thought of Keanu Reeves, but figured that the actor would be burnt out from making another science fiction film after making The Matrix trilogy. Robert Downey, Jr. was attracted to the film when he heard 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 Freck with Rory Cochrane in mind. The actor was interested but did not want to recreate his role in Dazed and Confused. Both Woody Harrelson and Winona Ryder agreed to appear in the film based on the script. Reeves and Ryder agreed to work for the Screen Actors Guild scale rate plus any back-end profits. As with Linklaters earlier Waking Life, syndicated radio host Alex Jones has a small cameo as himself.
Linklater assembled the cast for two weeks of rehearsals in Austin, Texas before principal photography began in order to fine-tune the script. The result was a fusion of Linklaters writing, the novel and the actors input. To prepare for their respective roles, Cochrane came up with his character five minutes before he got on the elevator to work; Downey Jr. memorized his dialogue by writing it all out in run-on sentences, studying them and then converting them to acronyms; and Reeves relied on the book, marking down each scene in the screenplay to the corresponding page.
Principal photography began on 17 May 2004 and lasted six weeks. Arctors house was located on Eric Circle 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 few modifications so that it looked like a run-down home. The filmmakers had looked at 60 houses before settling on this one. Linklater shot a lot of exteriors in Anaheim, California and then composited them into the Austin footage in post-production. Since the live action footage was to be animated over later, makeup, lighting and visible equipment, like boom mics, 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 tell Kelly what they needed. Because the movie was being shot digitally and then animated, occasionally actors forgot they would later be animated as they worked through a scene. Robert Downey, Jr. noted that he completely forgot the scene would later be animated as he worked through several takes in order to produce the smoke ring that would be featured in Barris first closeup shot.
Extensive on-set footage of the filming of A Scanner Darkly was featured in a UK documentary about Richard Linklater directed by Irshad Ashraf and broadcast on Channel 4 in December 2004.
After principal photography was finished, the film was transferred to QuickTime for a 15-month animation process: interpolated rotoscoping. A Scanner Darkly was filmed digitally using the Panasonic AG-DVX100 and then animated with Rotoshop, a proprietary graphics editing program created by Bob Sabiston. Rotoshop uses an animation technique called interpolated rotoscope, which was previously used in Linklaters film Waking Life. Linklater discussed the ideas and inspiration behind his use of rotoscoping in Ashrafs documentary, linking it to his personal experiences of lucid dreaming. Rotoscoping in traditional cel animation originally involved tracing over film frame-by-frame. This is similar in some respects to the rotoscope style of filmmaker Ralph Bakshi. Rotoshop animation makes use of vector keyframes and interpolates the in-between frames automatically.
The animation phase was a trying process for Linklater who said, "I know how to make a movie, but I dont really know how to handle the animation." He had gone the animation route because he felt that there was very little animation targeted for adults.
Originally, the film was supposed to be released in September 2005. Most of the animators were hired locally with only a few of them having movie-making experience. Six weeks into the animation process, only a few animated sequences were close to being completed while Linklater was off making Bad News Bears. 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 Linklater became frustrated with the lack of progress.
Animation and training for the 30 new artists had begun 28 October 2004. In late November, Mark Gill, head of Warner Independent Pictures, asked for a status report. There were no finished sequences, as the majority of animators were still learning to implement the films highly detailed style. Under pressure, some animators worked 18-hour days for two weeks in order to produce a trailer, which seemed to appease Gill and Linklater. Sabiston and his team were falling behind on the studios 6-month animation schedule and asked that the schedule be extended to a year and that the 2 million dollar animation budget be enlarged accordingly. This created tension, and in January 2005, while Sabiston and his four-person core team were strategizing at a local cafe, Pallotta changed the locks and seized their workstations, replacing them with two local artists, Jason Archer and Paul Beck. Sabistons four team leaders Patrick Thornton, Randy Cole, Katy OConnor, and Jennifer Drummond subsequently received the credit "additional animation" in the film, despite having worked six months designing the general look of the animation and the scramble suit, hiring and training animators, and 3D compositing.
The studio increased the budget from $6.7 to $8.7 million and gave Linklater six months to finish the film. Pallotta took charge and instituted a more traditional Disney-esque production ethic that included a style manual, strict deadlines, and breaking the film up into smaller segments. The animation process lasted 15 months. Linklater said, in regard to the post-production problems, "Theres a lot of misinformation out there... Changes took place during the early stages of us really getting going on this had everything to do with management and not art. It was a budgetary concern, essentially."
A test screening in December 2005 went reasonably well. A revised release date was set for 31 March 2006, but Gill felt that there would not be enough time to mount a proper promotional campaign and the date was changed to 7 July, putting the film up against Pixars Cars and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Mans Chest.
The score (more than an hours worth is in the film) was provided by Austin, Texas-based composer Graham Reynolds. Linklater approached Reynolds in 2003 after a club performance and suggested Reynolds create the score for A Scanner Darkly. Linklater and Reynolds had worked previously on Live from Shivas Dance Floor, a 20-minute short featuring Timothy "Speed" Levitch.
The composition and recording process took over one and a half years (the unusual time allotment was due to the films time-consuming animation process) and was done in Reynolds east Austin home, in his bedroom. It is not a synthesized score; all the instruments except electric guitar and bass were acoustic, though many were transformed through effects. The film also includes clips of five Radiohead songs—"Fog", "Skttrbrain (Four Tet Mix)", "The Amazing Sounds of Orgy", "Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors" (although it appears uncredited), "Reckoner"—and one Thom Yorke solo song, "Black Swan". An early test screening featured an all-Radiohead soundtrack.
The album is available from Lakeshore Records and includes the score by Graham Reynolds featuring the Golden Arm Trio. Additionally, the CD includes exclusive remixes of Grahams music by DJ Spooky and Jack Dangers (Meat Beat Manifesto). After finishing the film, Reynolds set to work on remixing the surround sound music into stereo. He then selected 44 minutes out of the film score in order to craft a listening CD while attempting to retain some feel of the arc of the film. Some of the shorter cues were assembled into longer CD tracks.
The soundtrack to A Scanner Darkly was released on 27 June 2006.
A Scanner Darkly opened in 17 theaters and grossed $391,672 for a per-theater average of $23,039. The film saw some expansion in later weeks, but ultimately was about $1 million short of earning back its $8.7 million production budget. It grossed $5.5 million in North America and $2.1 million elsewhere.
A Scanner Darkly was met with generally positive reviews. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds a rating of 69%, based on 174 reviews, with an average rating of 6.6/10. The sites consensus reads, "A faithful adaptation of Philip K. Dicks novel, A Scanner Darkly takes the viewer on a visual and mind-blowing journey into the authors conception of a drug-addled and politically unstable world." Its weighted score on Metacritic is 73 out of 100, based on 33 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".
Manohla Dargis of The New York Times wrote that the film "has a kind of hypnotic visual appeal". Carina Chocano of the Los Angeles Times found the film "engrossing" and wrote that "the brilliance of [the film] is how it suggests, without bombast or fanfare, the ways in which the real world has come to resemble the dark world of comic books". In his review for the Village Voice, J. Hoberman wrote, "Whats extraordinary about Linklaters animation, computer-rotoscoped in the fashion of his 2001 Waking Life, is just how tangible the Dickian labyrinth becomes", and praised Robert Downey Jr.s performance: "Midway through 2006, this supporting turn is the performance to beat in what seems the years American movie to beat". Andrew Sarris, in his review for The New York Observer, wrote, "Mr. Linklater emerges once again as the Austin auteur par excellence". Empire magazines Kim Newman gave the film four stars out of five and wrote, "its intelligence makes it near-essential viewing". In his review for the Washington Post, Desson Thompson wrote, "Linklaters rotoscoping process underscores this grave new world with pop-arty creepiness. Its dramatically muting effect, which shaves the highs off the more histrionic performances yet doesnt undercut the more subtle elements ... squeezes everything into a unified nightmare". Amy Biancolli from the Houston Chronicle heralded the movie as "[t]he first film to capture the authors transience and his art."
Entertainment Weekly gave the film a "C?" rating, and Owen Gleiberman was unimpressed, writing that the film is "more fun to think about than [it] is to experience", and found the films storyline "goes nowhere". In his review for The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw wrote, "The movie is often startling and engrossing, but the question of what the heck is going on, and why, is never entirely absent from your mind". Jack Mathews, in his review for The New York Daily News, called it "a murky, dialogue-heavy tale of intrigue".
Roger Moore from the Orlando Sentinel states: "Linklaters willingness to experiment ... is laudable. But Im not sure hes reinventing animation here, or even adequately serving that older-than-children animation audience." Tom Long from the Detroit News praised one aspect of the film, saying "[h]eres a guy willing to take risks, willing to tackle challenging material, willing to assume his audience has a brain." At the same time, Long notes that "[u]nfortunately, his audiences collective brain is going to be hurting mightily for the first hour of this film". Michael Booth from the Denver Post states that "[t]he artiness gets in the way of thrilling plot twists; were still trying to sort out images when we should be sorting out facts." Chris Vognar from the Dallas Morning News stated that "[m]uch like someone who doesnt realize how high he is, A Scanner Darkly talks too much and doesnt say enough".
Alex Jones appears in A Scanner Darkly and Waking Life. Philip K Dick wrote the story for A Scanner Darkly and Radio Free Albemuth. Philip K Dick wrote the story for A Scanner Darkly and Minority Report. Philip K Dick wrote the story for A Scanner Darkly and Next. Keanu Reeves appears in A Scanner Darkly and The Matrix.
The DVD was released in North America on 19 December 2006 and in the UK on 22 January 2007. The following extras are included: the theatrical trailer; "Weight of the Line", an animation tales feature; "One Summer in Austin", a short documentary on the filming of the movie; and audio commentary from actor Keanu Reeves, director Richard Linklater, producer Tommy Pallotta, author Jonathan Lethem, and Philip K. Dicks daughter, Isa Dick Hackett. Entertainment Weekly felt that the commentary track was "friendly and aimless", but that the featurette on the rotoscoping process, "a lot more lively".