A Scanner Darkly is a 1977 science-fiction novel from author Philip K. Dick. In 2006, it was transformed into a film, directed by Richard Linklater.
POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD!
Taking place in the future of a totalitarian society, the story surrounds main character Bob Arctor- an undercover detective trying to find and expose the source of a drug called Substance D. In the movie, and while in his scramble suit, Bob (as Fred) says, “Substance D. D…D is for dumbness and despair and desertion- the desertion of your friends from you and you from your friends. Everyone from everyone. Isolation, loneliness, hating and suspecting each other. D is finally death. Slow death. From the head down.”
Promoting those in Bob’s position is a corporation called New Path. Soon, as Bob discovers he is investigating not only his friends but himself, he begins to lose his identity (the idea of “posing as a narc”) and his brain slowly deteriorates.
The title A Scanner Darkly is taken from a Bible passage- (1 Corinthians 13:12) – which says, “For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face.” As Bob Arctor becomes aware of the scanners around him that record his every move, he thinks to himself, “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.”
Permeating this story is the theme of drugs. Supposedly Dick wrote this story based upon him and his friends who used drugs, and the unfortunate effects these drugs had on them. Both the movie and the book do a great job of displaying the paranoid, schizophrenic thoughts and chaotic behaviors of drug-users who are no longer fully connected to reality. While many feel the film was shot using rotoscoping because it portrayed the hazy, drug-induced state of mind the characters were in, I felt it added an amazing visual experience for viewers by showing that all reality in this future world was distorted for all human beings- not just a result of the drugs but of the state of this future society in general.
The ending of both the book and movie leaves us with many questions. After being sent to New Path and then to a farm, which Donna and the other narcs wanted all along in order to find the original source of substance D, Arctor, despite being burnt-out, sees blue flowers growing beneath the cornfields. He says, “I saw death rising from the earth, from the ground itself, in one blue field.” He picks up a flower, puts it in his boot, and says, “A present for my friends…at Thanksgiving.” From these lines, one might conclude that Arctor still had enough brain cells after all to recognize what the blue flowers signified (perhaps with help from people like Donna who previously and purposely in the beginning of the novel mentioned blue flowers). Still, because of Arctor’s mental deterioration, we’ll never know whether or not he comes out the hero.
Still, no matter what the outcome, the book and the movie both have disturbing, sinister undertones. Who really is manufacturing the substance D? Who is doing the surveillance? And why did Bob Arctor have to be sacrificed on a mission that seemed a lost cause? In this future world, it seems no one can be trusted, and no one is who they say they are. Ironically, the seemingly crazy Barris was the one character who actually seemed to be on to the plot, but we never find out what happened to him either.
Expectedly, the book goes into detail about some events which the movie does not, for example the book mentions how scramble suits were created and who they were created by, while the book also mentions a character named Jerry Fabin, while the movie blends in Fabin’s character with that of Charles Freck.
Some people believe the movie displayed Illuminati symbols. For example, Barris is wearing a t-shirt at the diner with the all-seeing eye pyramid on it, there are Masonic symbols found on drawings in Arctor’s home, and there are several hand movements used by the characters that reflect Illuminati symbols. The author of the novel claimed that his book wasn’t written for the bourgeois, yet no one really knows whether Linklater used such symbols on purpose or for fun.
At the end of the book and the movie, is the following quote from Philip K. Dick: “This has been a story about people who were punished entirely too much for what they did. I loved them all…These were comrades whom I had; there are no better. They remain in my mind, and the enemy will never be forgiven. The ‘enemy’ was their mistake in playing. Let them play again, in some other way, and let them be happy.”
Overall, this book and movie are not something to be taken lightly. There are so many underlying themes and questions regarding what’s going on that often times you may find yourself lost within the chaos of it all. But Dick and Linklater somehow made this chaos tragically beautiful.