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Monday, June 04, 2007

A Scanner Darkly: Animating Philip K. Dick

My latest tardy 2006 film viewing was of Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly. I liked the film, but mostly because of the Philip K. Dick story that inspired it (see a pretty nice write-up of the novel on Wikipedia).

Linklater uses the same "rotoscoping" animation technique as his earlier film Waking Life, which gives Scanner an appropriate surrealistic quality but the look isn't quite as fresh or impressive the second time around.

The story takes place in Orange County, California seven years into our future (it was more distant for Dick, who wrote his novel in the 70s), and none of it seems farfetched. About the only technology alien to our own time is the "scramble" suit used by the narcs to hide their identities.

The government is waging a war on drugs both abroad and at home, and the country has sacrificed its freedoms to those pursuits. With the help of cameras and scanners, undercover agents monitor everyone, including themselves, trying to sniff out the suppliers of a new, highly addictive drug called "Substance D." Some of those agents, as well as the conspiracy-minded addicts, suspect the complicity of a shadowy corporation called New Path that operates a franchise of drug rehab centers in a sweetheart deal with the government.

The main character is a narc code-named Fred (played by Keanu Reeves), who loses himself to his role as Bob Arctor, gradually suffering the trademark psychosis of Substance D addiction. As his mind falls apart, he tries to recover and understand his true identity, and it's that struggle for self that the novel's title speaks to. Frustrated that he's only able to get a murky glimpse of himself, Fred hopes the scanners contstantly studying him have a clearer view and can make better sense of who he is.

It's an interesting concept, especially in a society where we too find ourselves constantly being watched. As the network of cameras, sensors and computers gets extended, we are constructing an artificial intelligence with a god-like, omnipotent reach. Maybe under that unblinking, ever-watching entity's gaze, we will gain a better understanding of ourselves than we could ever achieve from limited individual perspectives. Of course that assumes those running the network have our best interest at heart, and that may be the most fantastic proposition of all.
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