A Scanner Darkly
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Who is Philip K. Dick?

Philip Kindred Dick (1928-1982) was an award-winning science fiction writer, and author of the novel A Scanner Darkly which this movie is directly based upon. Other well-known adaptations of his works include Blade Runner ("Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?"), Total Recall ("We Can Remember It For You Wholesale") and Minority Report ("Minority Report").

Although he did not gain mainstream recognition during his lifetime, in science fiction circles he was something of a legend: not only were his books way out there, but he himself was way out there, too: His books often combined aspects of religion, metaphysics, and philosophy with science fiction, with varying degrees of coherence. Dick himself was interested in both metaphysics and Christianity, at one point espousing the belief that he was possessed by the spirit of the Biblical prophet Elijah. In the mid-70s, Dick claimed to be receiving visions from a First Century AD Christian named Thomas, who had been persecuted by the Romans.

Much of "A Scanner Darkly" is modeled after Dick's own experiences between 1970-1972. Like Arctor in the film, Dick's wife walked out on him in 1970, leaving him with a four-bedroom, two-bathroom house. Dick-- at this point relying on a constant intake of amphetamines in order to maintain his 68-pages-a-day output of work-- proceeded to turn the home into a kind of communal halfway-house for homeless, drug-addicted young people. Dick maintained the arrangement until 1972. That year, the house was burglarized and some of his papers were stolen, an incident which became a turning point in Dick's life. Dick ultimately checked himself into rehab after he began questioning whether he was experiencing reality or an illusion of reality, and after getting out wrote "A Scanner Darkly" as part of the recovery process.

The title is a play off a Bible passage: "For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face" (1 Corinthians 13:12). In the book and movie, a "scanner" is a surveillance device, and the main character (who is under surveilance) gives the following monologue near the end, when his life is collapsing:


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. I'll only wind up dead this way, knowing very little, and getting that little fragment wrong too.

The movie was shot live using a Panasonic AG-DVX100 digital camera, and then edited into its final form. It was then turned over to an animation team, who used a computer program called Rotoshop to hand-draw over each frame, giving it the final "cartoony" feel. It is estimated that 1 minute of film required 350 man-hours of work to animate. There were different teams for different aspects: one did nothing but backgrounds, one did nothing but scramble suits, etc.

The DVD includes a special feature detailing this aspect of filming.

Substance D is a wholly-fictitious drug created for the story. It can be argued that it is an amalgamation of all drugs, especially in terms of its negative consequences from prolonged use.

In the movie, the source of the organic component of Substance D is mentioned as "Clerodendron Ugandens" [sic]. It is apparently based on a real species of flower native to Africa - Clerodendrum ugandense (now known as Rotheca myricoides), the blue glorybower. Like the movie asserts, the plant is highly poisonous to humans and livestock. It is used in traditional medicine, but it is not known to possess psychotropic chemicals nor is it used as a source of recreational drugs. In the book, the flower species is fictional and named Mors ontologica-Latin for either "death of existence" or "existing death".

The effects of Substance D are not shown in either the movie or the book. Barris does mention to Freck (when discussing the latters belief that bugs are crawling all over him) "You've advanced beyond the initial euphoria and on to the next stage"... implying that there is some type of high to be got from Substance D... at least at first. Given the films visual (rotoshopped) style, it is easy enough to assume that Substance D is a hallucinogen of some sort, and the rotoshopping is an attempt to portray this effect to the audience. The counterargument against this would be that at the end of the film, when Arctor has been in rehab for several months and dried out, the film would have reverted to normal visuals.

Two side-effects of Substance D are shown, though: it makes you want to take more, and it scrambles your brain in some fashion. Interestingly, the type of mental damage from Substance D varies widely from user to user (except that paranoia seems to be a constant) and each addict is shown to have his own symptom(s):

Arctor = split personality and cross-chatter

Barris = homicidal paranoia

Freck = formication (the belief that bugs are crawling on you)

Luckman = loss of independent thought; he becomes a follower and his mood matches that of those around him.

In the police state world of A Scanner Darkly, undercover agents wear these to hide their identity when they are in some official capacity, such as at police headquarters or giving a public service speech. Otherwise, criminals would recognize them, and their cover would be blown. Aside from concealing facial features and other physical traits, they also alter voice patterns. Effectively, it is impossible to tell who is wearing a scramble suit.

Scramble suits work slightly differently in the novel: they cycle through images so quickly that people looking at them don't really see anything but a vague, unmemorable blur. This was slowed down for the movie, as replicating this effect would have been cruel and unusual punishment on the animators.

It is a known "goof" that suit-wearers in the movie smoke, drink coffee, and pop Substance D pills directly through the suit. Undoubtedly this was allowed for the sake of cinematic convenience, and most viewers don't seem to have a problem with it.

First, there is some debate whether he even was married, or if that was a false memory caused by too much drugs. The main argument for this comes from Fred telling Hank he has two kids, and Hank replies "I don't believe you: you're not supposed to." This can easily be rebuffed by realizing Hank goes on to tell him that the purpose of his assignment was to get Barris -- something demonstrably not true (as his assignment was to ultimately get into New Path.) So, either Hank genuinely didn't know Arctor had a family, or (more likely) was just playing an extended mind-game to increase the D-driven confusion.

The memory to his former life happens early enough in the film (and book) that Arctor isn't so far gone that he'd start having false memories. In the back yard of Arctor's house is a swing set/teeter-totter, which are almost certainly left-overs from when his wife and kids lived there (the flashbacks take place in the same house.) Most tellingly, director Richard Linklater has commented on the question (roughly) "I think he did, but I also like the ambiguity of not knowing for certain." (url to interview no longer extant.)

So, assuming the family was real, what happened to them?

Though the film does not give a clear answer, the book states that he divorced his wife. Presumably, she took sole custody of the children.

Again, this is under the assumption that they were even real.

Cocaine is an excellent topical anesthetic, and there is an urban legend dating from the 1960s that certain pain medications had it as an active ingredient. One such product (allegedly) was Solarcaine (the sun-burn stuff.)

Barris claimed that from a $3 bottle of "Abrasocaine" (in the book it was Solarcaine) he could get extract a gram of pure cocaine. His technique was to spray the aerosol into a balloon and quick-freeze it, "causing the cocaine to rise to the surface because they are lighter than the oils." Presumably he would break the balloon and scrape the coke off the top from the frozen mass inside.

No, it won't work... not the least among reasons being there's no cocaine there to begin with.

The scene serves the purpose of showing Barris as a know-it-all who talks large but ultimately fails at every project. Of course, it's always possible he knew it wouldn't work anyway, and was just playing with Freck's mind.

It is possible that Arctor suffered a random freak accident, and his drug induced paranoia led him (and the others) to wonder about sabotage.

More likely it was sabotage, in which case the primary suspect would be Barris. Barris is clearly out to get Arctor, he has access to the car, knowledge of how to sabotage it, and the special tools needed to do so.

In the novel, there is a scene where Arctor had a little toy (a cephscope, to look at his own brain patterns while high) that was deliberately damaged by someone. Barris tells him (essentially) "It had to have been me who did it. I have access, the equipment, and the know-how. What I can't figure out is my motive, and I have no memory of having done so." Extrapolate that to the car scene, which would explain (if he damaged the car on a subconscious impulse without remembering so) why he would get into the car if it was destined to malfunction.

The secondary suspect would be Donna. In the movie, we see Arctor's car malfunctioning on the highway. Luckman and Barris travel with him leaving only one other person behind which is Donna. She could have sabotaged the car to give the necessary time window to install those cameras in the common areas of the house as well as intimate areas. She explains how Barris's note went missing, "I came in like the note said, didn't say when you were going to get back so I just sat around a while and ended up crashing." She also reveals how the smoked joint had gotten there.(Arctor asks her if she smoked a joint before she crashed) "Uhh ya, otherwise I can't ever sleep." Ironically enough, the next scene happens to be Hank walking down with Fred to introduce him to the "spy" station that displays numerous feeds from cameras strategically placed around Arctor's house. After all, ( later in the movie we find out she is "Hank", Arctor's Superior as an undercover agent.)

There are at least three possibilities, with each having pro and con arguments. Ultimately, it is up to the viewer to decide which of these reasons is the "correct" one. In order of likelihood, they are:

1) The girl was Connie; his seeing Donna was a "cross-chatter" hallucination caused by too much Substance D.

After being rejected by Donna, Arctor picked up a "Substance D whore" named Connie and had sex with her (in exchange for a handful of D.) He wakes up several hours later, looks over, and sees Donna in bed with him, then shakes his head in shock, and the girl has returned to being Connie.

Later, in "Agent Fred Mode" he watches the scanner replay of the scene, and essentially the same thing happens: the girl starts off as Connie, turns to Donna briefly, then returns to Connie.

Just before that last incident, the two doctors who had done a Substance D Impairment Evaluation early in the film call him up, and ask if he's experiencing any Sub D symptoms. They specifically mention "cross-chatter" where you look at one object but perceive another.... such as looking at a card of a dog and seeing a sheep.

The sequence serves two purposes: (1) it shows that his brain is indeed suffering from cross-chatter from D abuse, and (2) his brain is splitting into competing Arctor vs Fred spheres, and it is clear that Fred does not realize that he is watching himself on the tape: he does not remember that the same thing had happened to him (as Arctor) only a few hours or so earlier.

2) The girl was Donna, and Arctor was having a "cross-chatter" episode that made him see a random girl (Connie). His seeing Donna briefly was a "moment of clarity."

There are a couple of problems with this being the answer. First, The girl is clearly shown taking some Sub D, and it is later established that Donna does not do any drugs. Second, the girl sleeps over, which would be very risky indeed if it was Donna, as Arctor could very well wake up later and start seeing clearly, thus realizing who he had really been with.

Of course, it could be counter-argued that if it was really Donna, she was just pretending to take the pills, and that her pre-sex dialogue with Arctor was skillful acting on her part: asking questions about who the people in the living room were, where the bathroom was, etc. Donna would have known these things, of course, but was pretending to not to as part of the role of being someone else.

In the book, it is mentioned that Arctor had met Connie a few weeks previously at a party and had been carrying her number around with him since then. This detail is omitted in the movie, and it is not explained how Arctor met Connie, so one must also factor in the difficulty of Donna managing to be in the "right place at the right time" for Arctor to have picked her up after leaving Donna's. It is unlikely that Connie is a "curb crawler", as a professional prostitute would almost certainly have left after the sex so she could get back to business and new clients. So if she was just some "party girl" then Donna has quite a task of getting to be where Arctor would pick her out and up.

3) The girl was Donna wearing some sort of futuristic disguise, such as a scramble suit set to one image (Connie).

While Bob's initial reaction suggests it the "cross-chatter", his analysis of the recording of that night show that what he saw in person, he saw on tape too... When he pulls the image, he turns a device on and off repeatedly that has something to do with the video feed... it subsequently turns the image from Connie to Donna and back again... This device seems to cut through Donna's disguise.

There are multiple problems with this reasoning. There is a specific animation style to people wearing a scramble suit, and this is manifestly missing in the sequences. Also, one has to wonder how to have sex through a scramble suit without Arctor noticing this. Of course, people can smoke, drink coffee, and pop pills while wearing a suit (a known goof, see above) but sex-through-a-suit requires much more suspension of disbelief. Also, the same problem of "Donna" spending the night exists: the longer she stays, the more likely that Arctor would discover he was with someone other than Connie. Finally, the exact function of the device that "sees through the suit" is not known, and can just as easily be explained as it all taking place inside Arctor/Fred's head... especially when he was able to see Donna without the use of the machine the night before.

What happened to Freck?

Freck attempted to commit suicide as shown in the film, but instead of buying tranquilizers to O.D. on, he'd been "burned" and given halucinogenics... hence the "Sins of Freck" guilt trip. Presumably the halucination ended/wore off after a while, leaving him still among the living.

Freck can be seen briefly (with a shaved head) near the end of the film in the New Path rehab clinic.

What happened to Luckman?

This is not revealed in either the movie or the book, and is left to the viewer's imagination.

The list also appears in the novel, and is an index of Philip K. Dick's friends who either died or suffered physical damage from too much drug (ab)use. The author includes himself in the list (as "Phil".)

"Teen Angst" by M83.

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