REPLAY: A Scanner Darkly
A Scanner Darkly, 100 minutes, 2006, directed by Richard Linklater, script by Richard Linklater, based on the 1977 novel by Philip K. Dick. Cast: Keanu Reeves (Fred/Bob Arctor), Winona Ryder (Donna Hawthorne), Rory Cochrane (Freck), Robert Downey, Jr. (Barris), Woody Harrelson (Luckman)
Review by Mark Wegierski
It should be stated at the outset that this is a recently animated-over version of a live-action movie or television special that was almost certainly released quite a few years ago. A number of scenes in the movie (especially the end-scene) seemed instantly familiar to the reviewer. That one of the central tropes of the movie is the U.S. Government’s “War on Drugs” would point to its earlier provenance. One could suppose the attempt to portray the film as “new” is a sort of “Phildickian” joke on the audience, supported by the film’s publicity efforts, which many major media outlets and websites have been going along with.
Philip K. Dick (1928-1982) was one of the most prolific and interesting American science fiction writers, and a number of his novels and short stories have been turned into big-budget Hollywood movies, most prominently, Blade Runner (based on his 1968 novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?). Blade Runner (1982) directed by Ridley Scott, is one of the greatest science fiction movies ever made. Against the backdrop of an ecologically-wasted, future Los Angeles cityscape of almost perpetual black rain, a down-on-his-luck policeman has to take one last assignment to eliminate an escaped group of “replicants”, biological constructs who look like humans but have superior physical powers and intelligence, and whose built-in lifespan is four years. As he wanders through the hypermodern wasteland to carry out his grisly assignment, significant questions are raised about what constitutes the human and the natural in an environment where life can be artificially created, and nature has virtually disappeared from the Earth.
The plot of A Scanner Darkly is focused on the intrigues around an investigation of a prominent drug-dealer, by a determined policeman, said to be set “seven years from now”. It is complicated by the fact that in this future, the identity of drug officers is disguised from other drug officers, by using electronic screens. Illicit drug use has become endemic, and the situation is quite hopeless. It is also rumoured that the large corporation that runs some of the drug rehabilitation centres is in fact engaged in producing and selling illegal drugs, presumably for the sake of ever larger profits.
It is an interesting question why Philip K. Dick’s writings have struck such a chord with the audiences of the current-day period, and have been so eagerly adapted by Hollywood. Although PKD could certainly be seen as some kind of spiritual seeker, his religious views were extremely heterodox. (He was nominally an Episcopalian.) Hence he doesn’t have the current-day pop-cultural disadvantage of being seen as an orthodox Christian. Secondly, many of his writings could be seen as conducive to a kind of generalized paranoia about the nature of American society. In the 1950s and 1960s, this was usually seen as a critique emanating from the left or far left. Thirdly, because of his heavy involvement in illicit drug use (most prominently of LSD and amphetamines) he is seen as a “counter-cultural” figure of the 1960s.
While certain left-wingers in America have accused right-wingers of “paranoia”, some people on the left also espouse exaggerated views. For example, there has been a definite undercurrent of left-wing opinion adumbrating a “conspiracy theory” around “9/11” in various forms – for example, that George W. Bush had prior knowledge of the 9-11 plot and deliberately let it go ahead, because it would confer enormous political advantages on him.
In the 1950s to 1960s, deep suspicions about everyday American society probably served as a motor for revolutionary left fervor and “counter-cultural” activism. It should also be noted that PKD’s elaborate sense of suspicion of “normal American society” never strayed into themes that could be perceived as anti-Semitic or racist, which would have made things far more difficult for the friendly reception of his writings into the popular culture.
PKD’s view of reality could be seen as somewhat Gnostic. It is little understood today that some of the early Gnostics were decidedly more “anti-material” than orthodox Christians. The latter have actually not been as alienated from the physical world and the body as is imagined by some of their current-day critics. In his mind-bending fiction such as Ubik, PKD seemed to be saying that the actual physical world is utterly corrupt and is in fact prone to play out all kinds of “tricks” or “ensnarements” on the hapless individual. The inspiration for the Wachowskis’ Matrix movies, it could be argued, is clearly “Phildickian”.
Ironically, the world that has been created in the wake of the Sixties’ revolutions in America itself seems dystopic to the authentic traditionalist or conservative. Traditional views which were considered just “commonsense” a few decades ago, now often have the aura for their adherents of being based on some kind of “special insight” accessible to very few human beings – seemingly requiring a virtually superhuman, “Gnostic” perception. There is certainly no affirmation of them in “the mainstream media”, the academic world, the business world, or most workplaces. In some social contexts, the situation has reached surreal dimensions. In major sectors of America today, one gains great social approval from being seen as a gay activist and one is reviled for being seen as a critic of homosexuality. To take another example, to suggest that having children out of wedlock should be seen as socially irresponsible is now itself considered a disreputable notion in some quarters. It could be argued that we are living in an antinomian social and cultural environment characterized by the full-throated roar of the “transvaluation of all values”. Hence, especially for the more reflective traditionalist – who cannot simply disappear into the bliss of “unconscious” living — the degree of alienation from society, and of suspicion of “the system” may itself be approaching “Phildickian” levels.
At the time the movie was released in 2006, some of the left were cleaving to the view of George W. Bush as a virtual “fascist” – almost morally equivalent to Osama bin Laden — who was on the verge of creating an American “theocracy”. However, if America today is really living in a “new Dark Age”, it is clear that the real social contours and troubles of this incipient dystopia are much different than some on the far left imagine them to be.
A Scanner Darkly raises many important themes. For example, there is the issue of the extent to which a given individual may have to undergo extreme suffering in order to create a better society in the future. For a traditionalist critic of the system today, that could be an extremely poignant theme – especially since “the future” is conventionally said to belong to “progressives”, i.e., it will be – from the traditionalist standpoint — “more of the same – but only worse.” The movie is certainly directed toward adult sensibilities but its drug and sexual content is not overbearing.
The movie is said to be set “seven years from now” – when “America has lost the War on Drugs.” It cannot be doubted that illicit drug use is a terrible plague upon American society. However, the left rarely considers that it was something that was largely unleashed upon America in the aftermath of the Sixties’ ferment, typified, of course, by figures such as Timothy Leary. The rationalizations and justifications for illicit drug use have been around for decades now. What is also not often considered by the left is that illegal drug use can as readily arise from too much affluence, rather than poverty. The perception of a meaningless life (which can just as easily occur among very wealthy as less wealthy people) is arguably one of the motors propelling it. Ironically, American society is so consumerist and consumptionist that living a life that was once perceived as reasonably adequate is now seen as unbearably stifling and boring. The explosion of “crystal meth” use in the American heartland is a very bad portent. Instead of finding some kind of meaning in their lives by something as simple as, for example, reading for pleasure, many young people in rural areas find their lives irredeemably boring.
There has certainly been criticism of the large pharmaceutical companies as also “pushing” the selling of mood-modifying drugs, such as Ritalin and Prozac. Nevertheless, there are without doubt major differences between drugs whose main purpose appears to be calming and such substances which are from the outset narcotic, hallucinogenic, or agitating.
In the reviewer’s opinion, it is questionable to implicate the American corporations in the rise of the drug culture – which is one the main themes of A Scanner Darkly. The criticism can only be made insofar as the corporations contribute to a materially-driven, alienated social environment of “instant gratification.” It could be argued that it is the Hollywood entertainment conglomerates and the rock- and rap-music industries, which have, to some extent, glamorized drug use.
It may be surmised that America’s drug problems will continue as long as society is pervaded by anomie. However, the prospects of some kind of major social and cultural restoration which would hopefully lessen the aching existential emptiness that breeds drug abuse appear to be somewhat dim today.
Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based science fiction and film aficionado