Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog


Last night I went to go see “A Scanner Darkly,” the dis-topia flick starring Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder based on the 1977 sci-fi novel by Philip Dick. Now, before you shout “Keanu Reeves!” and pan the movie, believe me, the acting issue was more than made up for by a phenomenal performance by Robert Downy Jr., among others. And even then, somehow Keanu was handed a role that was MEANT to be somewhat cardboard, somewhat jaded and stilted.

“What does the scanner see? Into the head? Down into the heart? Does it see into me? Into us? Clearly or darkly?”

This is the line from whence the title comes: its reference is muddled, and meant to be. Much like Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” (and the subsequent Apocalypse Now), Scanner’s subject matter is the darkness within the human heart; the ability for good intentions to be corrupted beyond all semblance of right and wrong; the loss of the individual within an unfeeling machine whose gears grind on, no matter what. The movie portrays a world, only 7 years into the future, where the drug “Substance D” reigns supreme in America (20% of the population is an addict) and the “war on drugs” consists of betrayal, covert surveillance, and a tangled web of lies. (More under the fold…….)

:::Some Spoilers Below::::

Returning to the same intricate/trippy animation style as seen in Waking Life, director Richard Linklater constructs an alternate, yet somehow familiar, reality populated with people who aren’t what they seem. The plot follows the main character Bob Arctor (Reeves) as he attempts to live a double life as an undercover narcotics cop and an addict to Substance D. One of the hardest hitting scenes in the movie is Arctor’s description of why he left quiet suburban life for the life of an addict. When the movie starts, he lives in post-suburban squalor, in the same house where he family once was. But instead of a wife and two daughters, he now lives with his touch-me-not girlfriend Donna (Ryder), and two friends Barris and Luckman(Woody Harrelson and Downy Jr.).


Bob works for the sheriff’s office, where no one’s true identities are known amongst officers. Everyone wears a shape-shift suit to conceal their identity, even at work. This allows Bob the freedom to live his double life anonymously, yet somehow his “street persona” attracts the attention of the sheriff’s department. He is assigned the ironic task of monitoring secret surveillance tapes of his own house, his own friends, his own conversations. He’s in a Catch 2: he cannot let on like he knows anything but his illegal activities are now being monitored, scanned, recorded.

The movie follows the neurodegeneration of the main characters, as well as their moral degeneration. Substance D, which almost all the main characters are addicted to, results in gradual psychosis, hallucinations, and “hemispheric competition.” There are a couple scenes where (as a neuroscience kid) I gagged when they spoke of the degeneration of the optic chiasm, and possibly hemispherectomies, but on the whole the psychology was well-integrated. While Bob starts out as an intelligent, highly moral police officer, he gradually degenerates into a hallucinating, pill-popping (even on the job) automaton. Eventually he becomes so brain-dead that he is caught at his job, and sent to rehab (to “New Path” as they called it) in a puddle of his own vomit. While in rehab, it is revealed that his girlfriend Donna was in fact his police superior, and she had orchestrated his addiction to try to implicate New Path in the distribution of the very same drug they claimed they were attempting to treat. Bob was merely a pawn in this plan, which was insinuated to be ultimately successful.


The movie, based on a book, had its moments of dialogue glory as well as scenes that seem to stall. One scene where Woodly Harrelson’s character almost chokes on something could have been cut, but I would have loved to have seen more of Bob’s introspection into his illness and decline. At the end of the movie, the credits reproduce the liner notes in the book, where Philip Dick lists off many friends who have died or been permanently damaged by drug abuse. Interestingly, he lists himself (pancreatic damage). This seems quite apt, as it is not hard to imagine much of the drug-related experiences to have been partially biographical.

A side note: This film is visually stunning. It was filmed with live action actors, and then animated over it. Each minute of film represented 500 hours of work, which led to the delay of its initially-planned release a year ago.


  1. #1 Craig Pennington
    July 25, 2006

    Not reading your spoilers, so maybe not on topic, but this is the 1st movie I’ve wanted to see in a theater since LOTR. I thought the novel was awesome and when I heard that Richard Linklater was directing and Robert Downey Jr was being cast, I thought this might be a PKD adaptation that works well as PKD (I liked _Blade Runner_, but it wasn’t true PKD.) Maybe this weekend. Maybe next. I can see I’m going to have to work hard to avoid the spoilers.

  2. #2 Jayson
    July 25, 2006

    After feeling cheated after watching waking life (I should have known better as an atheist to watch a hippie’s fantasy filled with hubris, bad premises, poor logic, and new age soapboxing), I had a love-hate with this one. I want desparately to see it, but I didn’t want to watch another film by this director if it involved me making a leap on the scale of “ok, let’s assume there are unicorns,” before accepting any of its premises.

    Luckily you’ve persuaded me otherwise. Thank you.

  3. #3 Blake Stacey
    July 25, 2006

    It’s a good movie to see at a midnight screening. I’d actually be eager to see it again, which is far more than I’d say for Waking Life. Oddly enough, the poppy fake neuroscience actually “worked” for me, to an extent: it gave me the impression that the doctors either didn’t know what in blazes they were talking about or were deliberately lying, which meshed well with the overall “feel” I got from those scenes.

    Arctor is being manipulated, after all. It only makes sense that the police department headshrinks don’t feed him entirely accurate information.

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