In "A Scanner Darkly," Richard Link-later gives an audacious cinematic adaptation of Philip K. Dick's 1977 novel about corporate/government surveillance and a public led by their noses. Given the novel's scattershot method of dipping in and out of the reflexive reality of a group of drug addicts and state-employed wonks, Linklater's use of rotoscoping (see "Waking Life") adds a veneer of narrative information that causes you to further question the identity puzzles presented in the story. Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) is an undercover Los Angeles narcotics cop who wears a "scramble suit" that disguises his identity, even to his employers, behind an ever-shifting amalgam of physical appearances. Arctor himself has become addicted to a drug called "Substance D" and is so far removed from his personal sense of identity that he puts what little faith he has in the hope that the all-seeing scanners will view him clearly.
Set seven years in the future, the movie immediately submerges you in its comic paranoid atmosphere. A young druggy, Charles Freck (Rory Cochrane), scratches all over his nude body at real or imagined aphids that attack him. Freck desperately phones his friend Jim Barris (Robert Downey Jr.), who requests that Freck bring him samples of the aphids in a jar. We can tell by Barris' wry and distant tone that he's not much of a friend to Freck, but he's the closest person available. Freck nervously drives to a diner where he and Barris engage in a superficially lofty conversation about the extent of Freck's addiction to Substance D (which causes "dumbness, despair, desertion and death") before retiring to a mini-mart to acquire inexpensive household ingredients that Barris will turn into another mind-altering substance.
This is the codified self-destruction of Arctor, who resides in a low-rent Anaheim cul-de-sac with Barris and Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson), an equally wobbly addict. The three live a dead-end frathouse existence. The intellectual apathy that the men rely on as their moral imperative for pursuing oblivion is to be savored, as when Barris brings a newly purchased bicycle into their house. Acquired from a neighbor, the ostensibly stolen bike's gear-count gets considerable attention as an object of animated debate among Luckman, Arctor and their mutual friend and drug dealer Donna (Winona Ryder). Here, as in other scenes, Linklater embraces Dick's source material for its inherent humor, and the comedy soars.
Bob Arctor isn't as drug-ravaged as Barris or Luckman, and he struggles with his past as a responsible husband and father. When Arctor isn't trying to doublethink his way around being his police department's number one drug-dealing suspect, smarmy young inquisitors patronizingly insult him during psychological testing sessions. Arctor lives in a bad dream that becomes a full-fledged nightmare at the turn of a romantic screw involving Donna, who may or may not be part of the authoritarian metaplot that spirits Bob Arctor into a corporate/government-run land of "rehabilitation."
Linklater sticks to the narrative flow of Dick's novel without embellishing it with the current sociopolitical realities, which the book foreshadows. In so doing, the director contains the author's enigmatic work as it pinpoints all-consuming aspects of our modern existence—the pervasive use drugs and corporate/governmental surveillance to stifle freedom of thought and action.
"A Scanner Darkly" is a movie that you appreciate better the second time around. It's easier to laugh at the jokes after you've accepted Dick's cynical 1977 vision of America in the year 2013. Like George Orwell before him, Dick's premonitions were just barely ahead of their time.
This review originally appeared in the Maui Time Weekly. "A Scanner Darkly" starts at the Malco in Madison on Sept. 8