Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Who Scans the Scanners?

For the past 20 years, the United States has been fighting a war on drugs.

US forces have been active in many South American countries where drugs such as marijuana and cocaine are produced. Yet, no matter what the American government does, they can't seem to prevent this war from coming home to their own streets.

In A Scanner Darkly, Philip K Dick presents a chilling depiction of a crucial part of the drug war -- the intelligence war.

In the film Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) is a cop under unprecedentedly deep cover. Not only do his roommates, who he is surveilling for an unstated reason, not know who he is, but neither do his fellow officers in the force. Even so, it comes as a shock when Arctor, in the course of his meeting with an also-unidentifiable superior officer, is assigned to watch himself.

In Preempting Dissent, Andy Opel and Greg Elmer argue that a culture of preemption has led to the development of countless weapons and surveillance tools for use by police to control "undesirable" or "subversive" elements of the civilian population.

In A Scanner Darkly, the Orange County sheriff's department is depicted using an unprecedented level of computerized surveillance in order to monitor the activities of Substance D users. In order to do this, however, they have to literally watch everyone, and they do.

The epitome of this new breed of policing technology seems to be symbolized in the scramble suit -- a suit that conceals the identity of its wearer by continually morphing into more than one million-and-a-half different personalities.

Like a surveillance net that watches everyone -- regardless of one's involvement or lack thereof with Substance D -- the scramble suit erases personal identity. In Arctor's case, it conceals identity to the point of personal confusion -- although the drugs he continually ingests throughout the film certainly must help in this regard.

Ironically, the scramble suit is used not to conceal the undercover officer's identity from those he is monitoring, but rather from their fellow officers. This makes it fairly clear how Arctor could even possibly be assigned to watch himself.

The "who watches the watchers?" (or in this case, "who scans the scanners?") theme of the film actually goes even deeper than this. In A Scanner Darkly almost nothing is as it seems, right up to the final credits.

The film even unfortunately does take a few seconds to indulge blowhard conspiracy theorist Alex Jones in his own delusions of significance -- in one scene in the film he's swept into an unmarked van by men dressed entirely in black. At least those who have always wanted to see Jones kidnapped by a team of G-men will be able to enjoy these few seconds of the film.

For anyone interested in a film combining the best elements of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas with the best elements of The Recruit, A Scanner Darkly is sure to please, but the grim warning about the unrestrained development and use of police surveillance technologies should not be overlooked.

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