A SCANNER DARKLY

Richard Linklater, Director
Warner Independent Pictures, 2006

The first time I noticed that something was wrong, askew, off-kilter, it was before the movie even started. I’m in the foyer of the cinema staring at my ticket. But it isn’t a ticket. It is a flimsy piece of white paper. I look at it again, to see if I’ve made a mistake. I have not. It isn’t dirty pink and almost cardboardish; it’s flimsy and bright. But that isn’t the thing that bothers me; that’s just the thing that makes me pay attention. This “ticket,” this piece of thin white paper that is no more than a simulacrum of a real movie ticket—it has something ghastly written on it. It doesn’t just say A SCANNER DARKLY SHATTUCK CINEMA, BARGAIN, $7.50. In fact, that information is virtually invisible to the human eye.

Blinking in the gloomy half-light, I realize that I am just a hundred yards away from where Philip K. Dick went to high school, less than half a mile from the UC Berkeley campus where he studied philosophy before dropping out, in the very town where so much rebellion fomented and protest erupted. Dick’s stories were an important part of that, and now the director Richard Linklater has made a big-deal movie of the author’s brilliant and confused 1977 novel A Scanner Darkly. It has real movie stars in it, like Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder, Woody Harrelson, and Robert Downey, Jr., and I haven’t even sat down yet, but already I feel like a character in the film.

That’s because the words on this movie ticket, the only words I can actually read without putting on a pair of spectacles, are: COCA-COLA. With the little registered trademark sign at the end. I’m thinking, hold on a second, in the Dick novel the Donna character rips off Coke trucks and says: “The Coca-Cola company is a capitalist monopoly.” I decide that this logo on my ticket cannot be real.

Inside the auditorium, I quickly become acquainted with the rotoscoping technique used by the director in which the live action film is traced and “painted” in by animators—it’s similar to his movie Waking Life, but much more complex and detailed. It’s not real paint, of course. They have computers and stuff to do that. I dig out my ticket again as the titles roll, to see if it’s changed, but I can’t read it in the dark. What was I thinking? Absent light, no sight. Any- way, it probably still says COCA-COLA. They couldn’t, like, mess with that, could they? In post-production, I mean.


A Scanner Darkly isn’t supposed to be a morality tale (Dick wasn’t into that sort of thing), but it comes awfully close. Dick was interested in consequences, not punishments. And this is a karmic story about what happens when someone decides to ingest substances that mess with the brain. In A Scanner Darkly it is Substance D, a deadly synthetic drug that is extremely addictive, that eventually remixes Keanu Reeves’s mind. Did I say Keanu Reeves? I didn’t mean that. But the character he plays, Agent Fred, that guy has a serious habit. So serious in fact that he forgets he is a narcotics agent who is spying on someone called Bob Arctor (sounds like “actor,” get it?), who is also himself.

So he forgets that he is spying on himself, and then they both become Bruce. That was a plot spoiler. And I know what you’re thinking. The technology of the novel is virtually built for getting inside someone’s head. You’re thinking, well, in a book, we’ll buy the notion that a person can spy on himself until he forgets that they are one person and not two (the idea being that Substance D has eroded the connections between his left and right hemispheres). But sometimes a picture is worth a bit less than a thousand words. One becomes confused watching Agent Fred/Bob Arctor watching himself on videotape but forgetting that it is himself that he is watching, because seeing this, as opposed to imagining it in the mind’s eye, involves a much greater leap of aesthetic faith. The goal here is to illustrate the novel’s theme (and a theme throughout Dick’s work) of identity formation and its inherent instability. But the movie gets confused about its confusion about identity. Which is to say, while it sometimes seems to be questioning the very nature of a fixed self (is Bob/Fred one person, or two, or none at all?), at other times it seems to be concerned with the idea of internal duality—a man pitted against himself—good versus evil, or perhaps fake versus authentic, within the mind of one person.

But Dick didn’t write about drugs just because he liked doing so much speed that he became paranoid; he wrote about drugs because hallucinations pose real philosophical questions about how we process everyday sense data. If Dick’s other works (such as Valis) dug deeper into issues of perception and the mind as a filter, A Scanner Darkly is more inclined to entertain us with the drug-addled banter of Arc- tor’s cohorts; the parts delivered by scene-stealing Robert Downey, Jr. are priceless. (And we might notice that some of this clever repartee was written by Richard Linklater.) In the end, A Scanner Darkly comes over more strongly as an antidrug story that ends, like the novel, with a roll call of the fallen. Linklater has pulled off a fine and faithful (perhaps too faithful) cinematic rendition of a phildickian story that is not always easy to follow. I left the cinema feeling suitably challenged by a movie that required me to be mindful throughout.

When I get out onto Shattuck Avenue, I check my ticket, shading my eyes against the glare of the light. It’s blank, completely empty, white. Suddenly I am face to face with reality. Finally, the real thing.

Get Daily Dharma in your email

Start your day with a fresh perspective

a photo of a Buddhist meditating
Explore timeless teachings through modern methods.

With Stephen Batchelor, Sharon Salzberg, Andrew Olendzki, and more

See Our Courses

Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.

This article is only for Subscribers!

Subscribe now to read this article and get immediate access to everything else.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Log in.