For years now, the cries of cinephiles have rung out in chorus: "There's no originality left in cinema - it's all franchises and sequels and prequels and men in capes" and yes, from certain perspectives, these claims are entirely justified. However, amidst the collective griping, we as an audience tend to forget that whilst there has seemingly been a decline in the quality of big-budget studio filmmaking, there has been a lengthy and consistent rise in the quality and substance of animation.

From Fantasia (1940) all the way up to Avatar (2009) and beyond, animation has been a constantly developing genre, its growth fuelled by the rapid development of technology and often both critical and populist acclaim. Pixar's near dominant box office success has gone some way to ensuring the medium's relevance in the 21st century; whilst the historical weight of Disney's early masterpieces prove its longevity. Even foreign animation films such as Spirited Away (2001) and Akira (1988) have fared better and seen more western success than Japan's biggest non-animated domestic hits ever did.

Fig I: Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder in A Scanner Darkly (2006) Dir: Richard Linklater


In recent years there has been an observable trend of prominent live action directors turning their hands to animation, and experimenting with its form in order to assess what certain styles can achieve when applied to traditional filmmaking. Wes Anderson for example, was somehow able to take his niche into even quirkier territory with Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), whilst Pirates of The Caribbean director Gore Verbinski gave us the brilliant Rango (2011), and simultaneously surpassed all his previous work in the process.

However, these examples, and to an extent much of the 'serious' contemporary animation we see now were preceded by two films from Boyhood mastermind Richard Linklater in the early 2000s. In a sense it was his demonstrating of what animation could contribute in terms of stylistic content that paved the way for its proliferation among more serious and traditional filmmakers, with both Waking Life (2001) and A Scanner Darkly (2006) highlighting perfectly the medium's strength when depicting disassociation, detachment and relative alienation.

This articles focus film, A Scanner Darkly, certainly signalled to contemporary audiences and directors alike that there were important and universal ideas to be found in this medium, and that the comedic and light-hearted associations that animation had gathered among western audiences were unjust.

Fig II: The use of rotoscoping adds a layer of separation between both audience and the characters, as well as an additional layer of separation between the characters and their reality.


The film presents a not too distant future wherein a drug epidemic has consumed America, and 80% of the nation is hooked on the highly addictive 'Substance D'. The government has enforced widespread surveillance to tackle the crisis, and assembled a huge network of undercover agents to infiltrate the supply chain. Concerning addiction, privacy and identity, A Scanner Darkly utilised rotoscoping (the process of drawing over each individual frame) to depict its drug-addled characters as surreal portraits of people, separated from reality by a barrier of hallucination.

One particularly powerful scene, and the pinnacle feat in terms of the film's use of animation, comes in the shape of undercover agent Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) as he returns to the house that he had previously shared with his wife and daughters in the time before he became addicted to Substance D. With his brain now fried from near constant use of the dangerous hallucinogenic, he attempts to rationalise the state that civilisation has descended into.

Fig iii: "What a waste of a truly good house, so much could be done with it" Arctor murmurs as he walks into the yard - the house is here used as a symbol for decline: note the litter, broken mailbox and overgrown grass.


Fig iv: more deterioration in the yard.


Throughout the film, Arctor's house is established as a microcosm for the nation it exists in. The gradual deterioration of the fictional nation through drug use, crime and invasive mass surveillance measures, is reflected in the decaying of the once idyllic home, which is now shelter to Arctor and his paranoid junkie acquaintances. Especially notable imagery are the cars in fig iv, once a symbol of American industrial progress and dominance, they now lie broken and aimlessly parked amongst the litter and rubble.

In a flashback scene we have witnessed the home as a well maintained, warm and welcoming location, wherein Arctor is a father, husband and responsible adult. Compare the return and contemplation above (iii & iv) with the flashback below (v) and it is clear that as the epidemic grows and the population loses their minds, the aesthetic decline of the mise en scene becomes especially caustic.

Fig v: Arctors family in the flashback


Fig vi: Arctor in the same room during his return


The above comparison presents us with the same room, albeit seven years later and in much worse condition. Fig vi sees Arctor in an imposing and sinister environment generated through subtle details in the animation - The bleeding shadows on the wall and the encroaching, emphasised pitch black on all surfaces becoming the defining features of the frames. Order and warmth are replaced by chaos and ruin.

However, the visual element of the animation alone is not the defining feature of the scene, nor the reason I chose it as today's film, rather it is the ideology and reasoning behind the use of animation that makes A Scanner Darkly such a vital addition to the genre. Within the scene, Arctor muses:

"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. I see only murk. I hope for everyone's sake the scanners do better, because if the scanner sees only darkly the way I do, then I'm cursed and cursed again"

The theme of identity is the strongest throughout the film, with the character's true identities separated from us by the layer of animation between them and us. We are denied an observation of their true appearance, and as a result, we become distant and disconnected from them. Linklater here places us in the role of the judging 'Scanner' of both title and quote, and Arctor prays that we will see through the murk and ambiguity of the animation to observe the good man hidden inside.

I refer to A Scanner Darkly as a 'Serious' animation due to its utilisation of the technique as an allegorical, sub-textual tool. Furthermore, it remains for me one of the finest and most effective demonstrations that the medium of animation holds the power to encapsulate ideas and encourage readings of the film, that live action alone could not. Here, animation serves to at once represent the visual hallucinations of Substance D, the inevitable isolation borne from excessive drug use, and the desperation to be recognised as a good person despite mitigating circumstances. We the audience are the scanners, and were in not for the cage of animation that he is trapped within, then maybe we wouldn't see Bob Arctor in such a dark light.