Login   Sign Up 


A Scanner Darkly - Review and Analysis

by Zettel 

Posted: 10 September 2006
Word Count: 1938

Font Size

Printable Version
Print Double spaced

Consciousness is the last mystery. It is the holy grail of brain scientists and K2 to philosophers. If consciousness is the substance of this mystery, personal identity is its form. The conceptual, even spiritual, genesis of Philip K Dick’s book upon which Richard Linklater’s challenging film is faithfully based, is a fascination with the exploration of the limits of consciousness, and the relationship of drugs to this process. But the themes of consciousness, identity, and the terrifying elusiveness and fragility of both in an unthinking and indifferent universe, have fascinated thinkers and artists alike for at least two millennia.

A Scanner Darkly raises too many philosophical questions for the usual review. But unless one tries to address some of these issues, then the film becomes just a quirkily animated faithful adaptation of an oddball book. Both book and movie deserve more that that. Dick’s book is genuinely prophetic about the motivation, use and consequences of drugs in our culture; and Linklater’s film make these issues resonate with contemporary significance.

Academic philosophy is always unconvincing on personal identity. It seems to miss the point. Or what is important to us about the point. As for scientists, they collapse into non-sense when they conflate brain, which is their territory; with mind and therefore consciousness, which is not. Consciousness is not a measurable problem to be solved by reduction to something else; it is a mystery to be contemplated. Artists are better equipped to illuminate this process than philosophers or scientists – because unlike both, the artist is concerned to show not explain (away); to reveal, not reduce. Dick and Linklater are both artists, and A Scanner Darkly, if not a marriage of thought and imagination made in heaven, is at least a meeting of two passionate minds that sparks the imagination and provokes thought. Often uncomfortable thought. ASD is not a fun night out. But with so much Hollywood candyfloss on offer, a bit of intellectual red meat is welcome now and then.

Dick’s first truth is that paranoia is symbiotic. The drug user is paranoid about the enforcer – believing he is out to get him: and the enforcer is paranoid about the user – as a threat to the conformity essential to social life. Both extrapolate a false belief from a grain of truth: the paranoiac that it is something personal: the enforcer that dissent is necessarily destructive. Throughout ASD substitute ‘terrorism’ for drugs and the key social and political issues abide. Dick’s book was born in the 60’s and his extraordinary vision of a fragmented society both pyschotic and puritanical is powerfully realised in Linklater’s film. Key to this is the special animation process last seen in his superb Waking Life. Still for my money the best film ever made that tackles philosophical ideas head on. Critics who have complained about the "distancing" effect of this technique have in my view, missed precisely the artistic point of its use.

ASD envisions a near-future California where 20% of the population are hooked on the ultimate addictive drug ‘substance D’ – “you are either on it, or you haven’t tried it.” Total surveillance through holographic scanners is a politically sanctioned necessity. A side-effect of substance D is that the two interacting hemispheres of the brain that deal with perception and cognition can become literally separated and begin to compete for control of the individual. This dramatic device represents the reality that some of our perception has cognitive elements and some cognition has perceptual elements. The extent to which these distinct qualities of consciouness are in harmony is a measure of stability in personal identity: their division, even fragmentation, renders our identity unstable, out of control, beset by uncertainty. And this chaotic experience of fragmentation is the defining quality of Dick’s fictional substance D. But the symptoms and effects are clearly drawn from his own and his friends’ experience with known drugs from LSD to cocaine. This instability in personal identity and the increasingly desperate struggle to hold it together, mirrors society itself. As Huxley put it, conforming citizens are “normal in relation to a profoundly abnormal society.”

And so to Dick’s second chastening truth – the very drugs that were regarded by the beatniks of the 50’s and then the hippies of the 60’s as liberating, a means of exploring, even expanding our consciousness as the saying went, are a perfect means of enslavement. Heroin is the ultimate capitalist product. And thus substance D becomes not just Huxley’s Brave New World ‘soma’ that disarms dissent through sensory pleasure, but destroys the very individualism of personal identity from which dissent springs. Religion lurks as a sub-text to ASD and the message is that there is always a price to pay for pleasure. As Dick puts it at the end of his book and Linklater his film, these people were punished too severely for their playful pursuit of sensation and experience. With death, or psychological disablement.

The drugs war has been out-sourced to New Path, a corporation who pursue, capture and eventually contain rather than treat, the shells of those whose identities have been destroyed by substance D. New Path’s holographic scanners can see everyone and everything. New Path, like God, sees all – except itself. Its deal with government precludes external monitoring of its own activities. No one guards these guardians. New Path operatives are also unknown to one another through the use of ‘scramble-suits’ which when worn continually ‘morph’ the wearer into thousands of ever-changing identities.

So a scramble-suited agent ‘Fred’ is tasked to track down drugs within a group which includes his own alter-ego Bob Arctor. Becoming Arctor when removing his scramble-suit, this double identity is suspected but not proven within New Path. Arctor’s friends include coke-addict and sexually repressed Donna (Winona Ryder), volatile screwball Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson), intellectual fixer and manipulator James Barris (a superb Robert Downey Junior), and nerdy Charles Freck (Rory Cochrane), plagued by hallucinatory infestation of insects. Linklater’s casting is not accidental. Each actor’s off-screen personal history resonates with their on-screen character.

Disorientation – of narrative and personal identity is at the heart of the Dick/Linklater enterprise. Buy into this, (not unquestioningly), and the point of the movie will absorb, engage and challenge you. Try to reduce it to a neat narrative clarity and you’ll be disappointed, as it seems to me many critics were. Most reviews I’ve read took a neutral ‘descriptive’ synoptic line. But it is part of the point of this movie, that this will not work. I know how up-itself that sounds but this is one where what you put in affects what you get out. Even Dick provides a form of narrative thread: the eventual revelations about the role of New Path; the tension of Arctor/Fred’s investigation; the fun and yes, innocent naiveté of the group of friends. ASD is much darker than Linklater’s Waking Life. And the darkness comes from his faithfulness to Dick. Dick’s world is dystopian – politically and personally. The unity Waking Life offers to personal identity – a sense of coherent consistency derived from rational questioning of belief systems, philosophical and spiritual – has precisely been denied the characters in ASD by the fragmentation of their personalities brought about by the disastrous separation of cognition and sensation. Dick’s final cri de coeur about excess punishment of honest exploration of the self is existential not merely political. Why is creation this way? It is, and must be, either a meaningless question – or more acutely, one to which there can be no answer. But then Dick is in good company of artists and thinkers who have railed and rebelled against an indifferent universe.

I found ASD a challenging and disturbing film. If Linklater fails at all it is in not capturing all of the humour of Dick’s book. But ASD strikes me as potent in its non-judgemental, but revealing exploration of the risks drugs constitute to our very sense of self. The idealism of the drugs culture in the 50’s and especially the 60’s, was perhaps sincere; but the profound risks to personal identity and social cohesion were equally real. On a personal level I watched the personality of a very promising young philosopher literally ‘disappear’ in the 70’s after about 18 months of escalating experimentation with mescalin, LSD and other fashionable drugs of the day. At the same time I overheard a young professor of philosophy seriously telling another older colleague that LSD was an essential experience to embrace. How much less valid is the current rationale of drugs for purely recreational use? As ever the Greeks put it well over 2,000 years ago – “if I drink of oblivion, then I reduce the stature of my soul.” Or more pithily “I drink to keep the company of fools.”

Philosophical Coda - For those whose patience is not already exhausted by the length of the foregoing.

What holds a personal identity together? In what sense are the myriad of experiences ‘I’ have – mine? Philosophers will tend to speak of bodily continuity and most especially memory. The fallacy of the 60’s generation was the belief that experience was a good in itself. This put perception ahead of all else. But the progressive, cumulative nature of experience required a cognitive thread to create the continuity. And this precisely was what the unqualified pursuit of sensation not only could not create but positively undermined. And so it is with ASD. The cognitive thread suggested by A Waking Life was precisely the process of questioning, doubt. But the most common form in which to express a sense of connectedness in experience is narrative – story. My story, your story, our story. Yet the personal narratives in ASD are constantly fragmented and disconnected. And interestingly, because ASD provides a kind of narrative thread, the investigation into the source of substance D, the disconnecteness of Arctor’s experience also undermines this enterprise.

The action and structure of ASD is designed to highlight these difficulties. In a key scene, we see the link and tension between cognition and perception developed in an almost farcical discussion about the bicycle Ernie has picked up cheaply. The debate is about how many gears the cycle has: with 7 gear wheels at the front and 2 at the back - 9 gear wheels produce 14 gears. Perception alone will only give you 9. You must understand how gear-cogs work to create different gears before the available 14 gears make sense. It’s a matter of linkage we might say. Both the form and content of this discussion displays that curious ‘disconnectedness’ of chunks of conversation between people stoned, high, or just plain drunk. Plus the random hilarity that exceeds its source.

What most academic Philosophy and all Science share is that both are reductive enterprises. The one usually reduces all to truth and validity; the other to measurable physical elements whose interaction is susceptible to predictable and therefore demonstrable outcomes. For both disciplines ‘certainty’ is a cardinal value. Curiously though, while the cultural status of science rests upon it being the paradigm of knowledge – “we can only know what we can verify” – these are more the values of classical Newtonian science than those of post-Quantum theory uncertainty. But that’s a whole different story and one that crucially rests on contentious differences about language and what it makes sense to say.

Enough! More than enough. Anyone still here, my congratulations and thanks. I tried long and hard to reduce and summarise this but it would not yield. So I finally gave up to let you the reader decide whether it is worth the effort.

Favourite this work Favourite This Author

Comments by other Members

Cornelia at 10:12 on 11 September 2006  Report this post
Zettel, Thank you for this interesting exposition.

You have given very little idea of the 'filmic' qualities - I assume it's the film you are writing about, although the book and the ideas seem to engage you in this account. I had decided, after seeing the (rather incoherent) trailer several times, to give it a miss, although the idea of an adult animation feature that did not involve goblins or superheroes seemed attractive. Also, there seems to be an embarrassment of cinema riches just now following the summer draught. Do you think anyone not so knowledgeable about philosophy would get much out of seeing this?


Zettel at 13:22 on 11 September 2006  Report this post

I think only an interest in ideas is required. It's a pretty dark film in tone so not easy to enjoy on a purely visual level. Unlike for instance the visually stunning Renaissance. Also animation and very striking to look at. I rather think fans of Philip K will go for this most. And most of them appear satisfied with Linklater's treatment. I find Waking Life a much more engaging film but both film and book of ASD are clearly serious efforts to capture something important.

I left the filmic qualities because almost all the reviews went on endlessly about the 'interpolated rotoscoping' etc mostly disapprovingly. Whether or not successfully, I wanted to try to get at what seemed on this occasion to be the main thrust of the film which was the difficult ideas it tried to represent. As I indicate even philosophy 'does' identity unsatisfactorily so I was intrigued that the medium usually accused of not being good with ideas, was used here to such good effect.

Thanks for the comments.



scoops at 12:45 on 13 September 2006  Report this post
Hello Zettel,

As a journalistic musing, this piece is far too long. That compromises its message and impact. Your style and reasoning are never a problem as the many excellent pieces you post can testify, but the writing here would benefit from the exercise of some control. It slips from pithy comment to self indulgence - from Paxman to Grosman in 1500 extraneous words.

I think you should retitle it, as it is an exposition of Dick's work, rather than a review. The film simply provides a useful trigger and an occasional touch point - as such it is not central to your thinking or your theories.

That said, you know your subject and it clearly gets to your heart, and that's always a good thing:-)


Zettel at 12:54 on 15 September 2006  Report this post
thanks shyama




this review and analysis has been chosen as a selected review on the BBC Collective website.


To post comments you need to become a member. If you are already a member, please log in .