A Scanner Darkly

Film
FUTURE SHOCK Reeves finds himself addicted.
FUTURE SHOCK Reeves finds himself addicted.

Time Out says

Philip K. Dick sure knew how to write. Take this passage, worthy of Raymond Carver, from his 1977 cult novel, A Scanner Darkly. Bob Arctor has just gashed his head on a kitchen cabinet:

It flashed on him instantly that he didn’t hate the kitchen cabinet: he hated his wife, his two daughters, his whole house, the back yard with its power motor, the garage, the radiant heating system, the front yard, the fence, the whole fucking place and everyone in it. He wanted a divorce; he wanted to split. And so he had, very soon. And entered, by degrees, a new and somber life, lacking all of that.

The place that Arctor goes to, rendered in hypnotic, shape-shifting colors by director Richard Linklater and a small army of computer rotoscopers, is deep into addiction. (Incontestably, Dick also knew about drugs.) The film’s look, previously seen in Waking Life, is a brilliant answer to Dick’s questing prose, altered states fluttering with surreal flourishes. Aphids sprout from the cranium of a user, and there’s no confusing them for actual pests. Huxley aside, drugs were hardly the province of science fiction until Dick came along. And it’s ironic that, as the author’s postmortem fame has grown, the movies based on his work, even Ridley Scott’s visionary Blade Runner, have strayed from his palpable sense of ruination.

Linklater’s fearless movie changes all that. As thoughtful a bit of summer counterprogramming as the director’s own Before Sunset, A Scanner Darkly rings bleak and true, a major act of literary deliverance. You won’t see gleaming metal ships or action set pieces—it’s not that kind of tale—but rather, a ratty Orange County “seven years from now,” a terrain of bleached-out suburban blocks, soulless eateries and the occasional homeless person. Politically, the universe is just a hair away from today’s climate: bar-coded license plates and a surveilling police force locked in battle with “drug terrorists” hawking the designer hallucinogen Substance D. And our hero? “Let’s hear it for the vague blur,” a corporate MC says behind a podium, gesturing to a figure of scary indecision: The ethnicities, hairstyles and clothes morph like water. Under this “scramble suit” (a beautiful extension of Linklater’s rotoscoping), Arctor serves the law as an informer.

There’s poetry in casting Keanu Reeves—savior of The Matrix but never quite clear of Bill and Ted blankness—as the blur. A gentle presence hamstrung by a leading man’s rigidity, Reeves has often strained to impart quirkiness to plastic roles. Here, he’s not called upon to leap, shoot or utter “whoa” in any capacity, and it’s an opportunity the star seizes upon. Granted, it’s still Keanu, dude, but the hollows of his cheeks give way this time to a fully occupied vacancy—yes, a paradox, but not a bad definition of acting. The burned-out spy is assigned to monitor a house of druggie squatters, one of whom (unknown to his superiors on the other side of the suit) is himself. So it becomes a story of a man watching himself die for a living; Reeves carries it mournfully, with unexpected pathos.

Around this black hole of a plot, a paranoid’s nightmare, Dick assembles flashes of illusive salvation, which Linklater converts into strong supporting turns. Among these are Donna (Ryder, in a return to daring), who withholds damaged love, and Luckman (Harrelson), an affectionate but deeply addled wild man. Loopiest of all is Robert Downey Jr.’s hyperarticulate Barris, a dealer and conspiracist—here’s an actor who hardly needs the help of animation to bounce off the walls.

The movie flows in a meandering trickle, suitable to its half-baked couch conversations about bugs and imposters (never less than fascinating), but bound to throw off run-of-the-mill genre geeks. Truthfully, A Scanner Darkly shares more with the darkest drug adaptations of yore—Naked Lunch and Jesus’ Son—where chemicals are a substitute for honest connection. Given that it’s Dick, a timely anticorporate stinger awaits us at the end of the trip. This is science fiction, all right, but of an ominous kind: the pharmacological science that swarms around us, easily procured and fatal to the soul. Linklater has made Dick’s compassion his own, and it’s an unsettling gift. — Joshua Rothkopf

A Scanner Darkly opens Friday 7

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