We See As Through A Glass Darkly

A Scanner Darkly Movie Poster

Even though I’ve never read any Philip K. Dick, I love Keanu Reeves and Robert Downey Jr. and the preview intrigued me, so I was excited to see A Scanner Darkly. The film is vaguely set “seven years from now” when a drug enforcement agent is tracking a drug dealer. It turns out that the agent IS the dealer. He ends up getting addicted to the drug he’s selling, Substance D, which causes him to lose track of reality, explaining the disconnect. The scanner is a tool the government of Dick’s dystopian future uses to spy on people.

The movie is loaded with drug themes, hints at the disastrous effects technology can have on humanity, and skepticism of government. The rotoscoping (à la Waking Life) helps drive home the sense of losing track of reality. It’s very hallucinogenic and makes you question, “What’s real and what isn’t?”

Several things about the film impressed me. I thought Robert Downey Jr. was AMAZING. I won’t be surprised if he gets a best supporting actor nod. The chatter between the characters was frighteningly believable and ridiculously funny. Poorod read a review that said the movie was “too talky” but I loved all the scenes driven by winding, complex, yet inane dialogue. I also think it’s noteworthy that there really aren’t any heroes in the story. Instead, there’s just a regular guy getting caught up in a bunch of crap.

Overall, the movie was confusing, irritating, intruiqing, and thought provoking. It left me with lots of questions. As is standard in situations like these, I researched and voraciously devoured any information I could find on Dick, including this NPR piece. What a fascinating man. Here are the things that interested me most:

  • He was heavily into drugs but somehow survived and grew to think that the notion of drug addiction as a disease is bullshit. He believed it to be a conscious choice.
  • He commonly explored duality, which was apparently in part related to having lost his twin sister when she was a baby.
  • He had visions, which he believed were bestowed upon him by a diety of sorts.
  • He was acutely aware of the fragility of consciousness and reality.
  • He was paranoid and at one point believed he was being framed by the KGB.
  • Some believe Dick was schizophrenic (of which he was terrified) or had a neurological disorder.
  • He was ahead of his time.
  • He wrote an impressive 45 novels. Not all of them were ground-breaking, but some were.
  • Often in Dick’s books, characters who would be heroes end up getting punished.
  • Dick was suspicious of technology and the way it removes the humanity from our endeavors.
  • He believed that the more we use technology, the more we’re removed from one another.
  • He was wary of too much power being invested in the government.
  • Total Recall, Blade Runner, and Minority Report are based on Dick’s writing.
  • There are other Dick-inspired movies in the works.

Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, I read that Dick didn’t come of age in an environment in which editors encouraged him to dig deeper or think twice. They favored getting a book out on schedule over quality prose. Despite that, Dick managed to crank out some prolific work. Imagine what he might have come up with had he been properly nurtured?

P.S. At the end of the movie, you see Dick’s afterword. It’s a listing of people, himself included, and the physical and mental consequences of their drug use, from pancreatic tumors to brain damage and even permanent psychosis. The latter especially left a formidable and lingering lump in my throat. Just say no! 


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