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On Dick, Film, and Philosophy

Dr. Dennis M. Weiss


York College of Pennsylvania

Im supposed to act like they are not here. Assuming theres a they at all. It may just be my
imagination. Whatever it is thats watching, its not human, unlike little dark-eyed Donna. It
doesnt ever blink. 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 cant any longer see into myself. I
see only murk. I hope for everyones sake the scanners do better. Because if the scanner sees only
darkly the way I do then Im cursed and cursed again. And well only wind up dead this way
knowing very little and getting that little fragment wrong too.
Bob Arctor, A Scanner Darkly
Blade Runners first main argument
1. Blade Runner contributes to longstanding debates in philosophy of mind over the status of the
soul/mind as distinct from the body by demonstrating and dramatizing the philosophical
claim that our attribution of a mind to a given creature is a response to the behavioural
repertoire with which their particular embodiment endows them (34).
2. Unfolding throughout the film is a counter-proposal for attaining humanity that focuses on
the role of acknowledgment. Ones humanity is established in the recognition of the humanity
of others, as in Deckards recognizing the humanity of both Rachel and Roy Baty (36 37).
3. Mulhalls reading of Blade Runner very clearly indicates a second philosophical argument he
sees at the core of the film. As he writes, To show that Roy Baty misconceives this quest as
one for more lifeas if a replicant might become human by living longeris the goal of the
film (33)
4. This point is closely connected to an even deeper philosophical claim Mulhall sees the film
making, as it addresses what it means to live an authentic human life. Mulhall argues that
Roy Baty comes to learn over the course of the film, as does Deckard, and presumably as do
we, that the value or worth of life is determined not by its length but by the intensity with
which he experiences each moment of itin other words by its manifestation of a specific
attitude towards the temporality of his own existence (40). This allows Roy to see that the
true significance or point of the moments which make up ones life should be generated from
within that life rather than from a reliance upon external guarantors (41).
Mulhalls missing Dick
1. Dick is certainly a towering figure in the realm where philosophy, literature, and science
fiction intersect, and one gains some easy traction when connecting philosophy to film via
Dicks science fiction, as might be implicitly recognized by Mulhalls extended treatment of
Blade Runner and the centrality of it to his argument.

2. The issues that were central to Dick and which are central in many of the films based on his
works are very similar to the issues that Mulhall tackles: the human condition, the impact of
technology on human flourishing, the status of the self, the problem of finitude and human
embodiment, the nature of being, and the question of authenticity.
3. The sheer fact of the number of movies that have been made based on his works, likely more
than any other 20th century science fiction writer, and the collective impact of these films. As
Wired Magazine noted in a recent article on Dicks impact in Hollywood: Dick's anxious
surrealism all but defines contemporary Hollywood science fiction and spills over into other
kinds of movies as well. His influence is pervasive in The Matrix and its sequels, which
present the world we know as nothing more than an information grid; Dick articulated the
concept in a 1977 speech in which he posited the existence of multiple realities overlapping
the "matrix world" that most of us experience. Vanilla Sky, with its dizzying shifts between
fantasy and fact, likewise ventures into a Dickian warp zone, as does Dark City, The
Thirteenth Floor, and David Cronenberg's eXistenZ. Memento reprises Dick's memory
obsession by focusing on a man whose attempts to avenge his wife's murder are complicated
by his inability to remember anything. In The Truman Show, Jim Carrey discovers the life
he's living is an illusion, an idea Dick developed in his 1959 novel Time Out of Joint. Next
year, Carrey and Kate Winslet will play a couple who have their memories of each other
erased in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Memory, paranoia, alternate realities: Dick's
themes are everywhere.
4. While it would take some significant work to support the following claim, I think it is not too
much of a stretch to claim that many of the films based on Dicks work are self-reflective in
the manner that Mulhall demands of films that are philosophical, that Dicks work lends itself
to films which, following Mulhall, reflect upon aspects of the nature of film. I will try and
support this claim in regard to A Scanner Darkly.
5. Looking at the films based on Dicks work raises interesting questions about what constitutes
a film series. Mulhall seems drawn to films that raise questions about the nature of a series
(the Alien Quadrilogy and the Mission Impossible series) and here we have the interesting
case of a series constituted by virtue of being adaptations from a single author. Again, in a
moment I hope to address this issue in regard to A Scanner Darkly.
David Edelstein: Philip K. Dick's Mind-Bending, Film-Inspiring Journeys
June 16, 2002, NY Times
Many people regard the 1982 ''Blade Runner,'' directed by Ridley Scott, as a masterpiece, and
Dick, who saw the film shortly before he died, admired its elaborate vision of a corroded future
cityscape. But there is no getting around the fact that the movie misses almost entirely the
psychological complexity of its source, Dick's 1968 novel ''Do Androids Dream of Electric
Sheep?,'' one of his most tantalizing explorations of the human capacity for empathy.
The bleary gumshoe hero of the film (played by Harrison Ford) has little connection to
the book's unhappily married drudge, who mechanically executes ''replicants'' as a means to
afford animals (now rare and expensive) for display in his front yard. The movie only fleetingly
touches on one of Dick's most beloved motifs: the way humans are becoming increasingly
mechanical while machines are evolving to meet them halfway. Dick envisioned scenarios in
which the computers would bleed and people rust -- a notion that would be evoked more by Mr.
Spielberg in ''A.I.'' (2001) than in ''Minority Report.''
Blade Runner and A Scanner Darkly
1. Merely on the surface level and recognizing that Mulhall is predisposed to think in terms of
series and is drawn to directors, it is interesting to think about the contrast between the typical

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Ridley Scott film (Thelma and Louise, G. I. Jane, Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, American
Gangser) and the typical Richard Linklater film (Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Before
Sunrise, Waking Life).
In contrast to Blade Runner and most other films based on Dicks works, A Scanner Darkly is
the most authentic to the novel (and so we can perhaps more comfortably allow the movie to
speak for the author), a novel thought to be the most autobiographical of Dicks works, and
interestingly Linklater foregrounds the relationship of the film to its author. Early in the film,
Dicks physiognomy appears as part of the scramble suit and the film closes with the
Authors Note from the novel, drawing clear connections to biographical details of Dicks
life. Linklater early on involved Dicks daughters, who were often present on the set, and who
remarked upon the authenticity of some of those sets, especially the suburban Orange County
home where much of the action of the film takes place. It is as if the film wants to keep the
author in front of us and in this respect runs counter to the other films based on Dicks works.
A Scanner Darkly similarly subverts the heroic central character of the typical Hollywoodized Dick film by taking Neo, the savior of the human race, and, with a nod back to one of
Keanu Reeves founding roles as Ted Logan in Bill and Teds Excellent Adventure, placing
him in the role of Bob Arctor, described in the film as the ultimate everyman, a constantly
shifting vague blur in a scramble suit, a fractured and flawed character addicted to Substance
D and subjected to having spy on himself, an action which further exacerbates his already
tenuous hold on reality. Here too A Scanner Darkly aligns itself with its originary text,
identifying not with the straights but with the freaks and losers that populated both Dicks life
and his novels. And indeed A Scanner Darklys cast reads like a list of stoners and losers:
Winona Ryder, Woody Harrelson, Robert Downey Jr. (although his star has recently been
rehabilitated in an action-hero rolealthough not without more than a twist of irony and selfdeprecation). A Scanner Darkly acknowledges the humanity of its author and its central
character by refusing to rewrite that character into the typical Hollywood action hero who
triumphs over technology by sheer dint of his humanity. Indeed transforming Neo into Bob
Arctor (the film literally draws over, or rotoscopes, Keanu Reeves, subjecting him to layers of
digital, that is technological, transformation) is one obvious step toward questioning that now
standard trope in Hollywood science fiction film.
These thoughts are further underscored by the interesting parallels and contrasts between
Deckard and Bob Arctor. Of course they are both law men, tasked with protecting society
from external threats (replicants/Substance D) produced by shadowy organizations (Tyrell
Corporation/New Path). They both have a complicated relationship to their professions, are
matched with a nemesis whose own humanity is in doubt (Roy Batty/James Barris), and
pursue a female whose self-identity is itself in question (Rachel/Donna). While the action of
A Scanner Darkly shifts from the urban realm of Los Angeles in Blade Runner to the
suburban realm of Anaheim and Orange County, both characters end up breaking through to a
more natural realm. In the theatrical release of Blade Runner, however, that natural realm is
portrayed as an Edenic outside to the nightmarish cityscape, while Bob Arctor, identified as
Bruce in the final scenes of the film, ends up in a decidedly more ambiguous place, a corn
field owned by New Path which serves as a cover for growing the little blue flowers that go
into the manufacture of Substance D. Where Deckard escapes from the dark world that is the
futuristic, noirish L.A., Bob Arctor willingly escapes from his sun-dappled suburban life into
the dark world: I hated my life, my house, my family, my backyard, my power mower.
Nothing would ever change. Nothing new could ever be expected. It had to end, and it did.
Now in the dark world where I dwell ugly things and surprising things and sometimes little
wondrous things spill out at me constantly and I can count on nothing.
As Mulhall and others note, Blade Runner recounts the education of Deckard and his
achievement of humanity. Over the course of the film, Deckard becomes more human and is
finally offered some redemption in the figure of Rachel. Bob Arctors narrative path is

decidedly different. A Scanner Darkly tells the story of his progressive de-humanization, the
breakdown of his personality amidst the rampant use of drugs and technology. And
Donna/Audrey doesnt turn out to offer any redemption. Indeed, she is the agent behind his
destruction, sacrificing his humanity, transforming him into something of an automaton, in
order to bring down New Path. While Deckard becomes more human, Arctor becomes more
mechanical.
6. Most importantly, however, is the contrast in Blade Runner and A Scanner Darkly over the
role of film technology in our lives. Where Mulhall suggests that the gun, the Voight-Kampff
machine, and in turn the camera need not deny humanity, that it all depends on how they are
used, as we witness Bob Arctors fragmentation we understand that its not simply a matter of
how the technology is used but how the technology may itself alter the cultural condition.
Again, its worth contrasting Deckards relationship to the Voight-Kampff machine or his use
of the Esper machine, both of which provide him with privileged sight, with Bob Arctors
relationship to the holo-scanners he employs. Deckards technology remains in his control, is
used by him to subject others to its gaze, has the power to confirm or deny the humanity of
those on whom its gaze is turned, guarantees results for its user, and its power isnt turned
back on the person wielding it. Bob Arctors holo-scanners are seemingly everywhere and yet
their powers remain highly ambiguous, especially as they are turned back on the individual
who is ordered to use them to spy on himself. What the scanner sees is never clear; a scanner
sees only darkly. And rather than confirming or denying the humanity of those who are
scanned, it transforms that humanity by being implicated in the construction of Bob Arctors
schizoid personality.