Watching A Scanner Darkly

A Scanner Darkly (film, 2006, Richard Linklater)

Paul March-Russell was showing this to his science-fiction module students, last week, and kindly invited Paul Kincaid and myself to sit in on the session.

The first thing that struck me about the film, apart from its being in rotoscope, and I’ll come back to that shortly, is that the story seems to inhabit very familiar Dickian territory. The film is dominated by paranoia: the paranoia of the individuals, especially those taking drugs, and more especially those taking Substance D; though it is difficult not to feel paranoid anyway when so much of daily life is under scrutiny by the state through cctv and other forms of surveillance.

There is also the paranoia of the state itself, manifest in the way in which the identities of police undercover agents are routinely concealed from one another, supposedly to avoid corruption in investigations. To achieve this, they wear what are called scramble suits; some sort of chameleon camouflage which registers an ever-shifting display of facial and physical features and clothing on the suit’s fabric. ascannerdarkly 4

The scramble suits provide a useful visual metaphor for the fragmentation of society generally, but also of the individual: the inner and the outer selves, and the ways in which they mesh and don’t mesh. Or, alternatively, one might argue that the scramble suit turns the wearer inside out. The uncertainty of daily experience is expressed in the constant churn of fragments of physical appearance. More than once, during the film, we see Bob Arctor, aka Agent Fred, almost crouching inside the tent of his scramble suit, surrounded by but utterly divorced from his external appearance, all this overlaid with an internal monologue which suggests that he is adrift in more ways than one.a-scanner-darkly1

And just in case we might be missing the point here, this disconnection is emphasised by the use of rotoscope, which turns conventional filmed action into something that looks more like animation. Features become blurred and indistinct, roughly sketched, although the physical movement of the characters remains mostly clear. If you like, the whole film is a scramble suit. We know that somewhere inside there are actors portraying characters (and as Paul March-Russell pointed out, it’s a team of actors who have all had their own highly visible problems with drug addiction, as if to lend the work an extra verisimilitude).

(Here I should say I’ve not yet read the novel, so I don’t know how close the film and novel run to one another – though I think it is perhaps indicative that the film’s ending draws on the novel’s afterword.)

The story takes up ideas familiar from other Dick novels – indeed, there are a lot of resonances with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the novel I know best. Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) is Agent Fred, an undercover narcotics investigator who is trying to discover who is behind the supply of Substance D. In the course of his work, he has met Donna (Winona Ryder), a drug dealer, and he thinks she may lead him to people higher up the supply chain. Also living in Bob’s rundown home are two other Substance D addicts, Barris (Robert Downey, Jr), frighteningly articulate, spewing out conspiracy theories by the score, and Luckman (Woody Harrelson), barely articulate, almost Barris’s alter-ego. What is also clear is that Arctor himself has become an addict during the course of his investigation.

As the film unfolds, we become aware that for Arctor it is as though there are also two parallel presents, one in which he is living his current life, surrounded by squalor, and the other, in which he has a wife and family. We’re led to suppose that Arctor as drug addict is the real existence – though what is existence? – while the other is a dream. There is though that sense of doubling-up which reminds me of the moment in Androids when Deckard stumbles into the alternative police precinct building, and his yearning for a different life.

There are other similarities, too. During the course of the film we see Agent Fred undergoing a series of tests which reveal that as a result of his addiction to Substance D the two sides of his brain have become uncoupled from one another so he is, in effect, in competition with himself, a doubled personality. (I especially liked the way the two hemispheres of his brain were represented as two testers, talking across one another.) Which of course further throws into question the nature of what we’re watching.

One of the stranger moments comes when Agent Fred is asked to investigate Arctor, whose house has been fitted with covert surveillance devices, though it later turns out that the authorities are really after Barris, and the whole thing is a kind of set-up. a scannerdarkly 3My sense is that becoming an observer of his own life – voyeur as much as surveillance agent – pushes Arctor over some ill-defined boundary. Not long after this he’s removed from the case because of his addiction and inability to do his job, and committed to the care of New-Path, a rehabilitation facility.

As it turns out when Arctor is shipped off to their farm to work, New-Path seems also to be responsible for the production of Substance D, a tricksy little piece of moebius plotting that struck me as very Dickian. But then, it seems that Arctor’s days as a narcotics agent might also not be over, as he secretes a flower in his shoe, to take to his ‘friends’ as evidence, so even at the end we’re still not quite sure whether Arctor ever completely lost himself or is dissembling.a scanner darkly2

I wasn’t too sure about the film when I first started watching it but by the end I found myself wanting to watch it again, because it is so extraordinarily complex, and so visually dense. Even pulling out a few stills to illustrate this, I keep seeing things I missed along the way. I’m curious too to see how the novel and film engage with one another. (Much as I love the ‘look’ of Bladerunner, when it comes to the story, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep seems to me to be far more interesting as a narrative.)