Having plumbed the lighter side of narcotics in “Dazed and Confused” (1993), filmmaker Richard Linklater descends into a bleak netherworld of addiction and squalor in “A Scanner Darkly.”
Adapted with exacting faithfulness from the novel by sci-fi seer Philip K. Dick, “Scanner” employs the same shimmering visual after-effect — known as “interpolated rotoscoping” — that made Linklater’s “Waking Life” (2001) such a blissfully disorienting delight. The effect is somewhat more ornamental here, suggesting a sustained hallucinatory buzz that makes even modern-day Orange County look subtly, inscrutably alien.
Such is the state of mind of one Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves, at his befuddled best), an undercover narcotics agent who falls under the spell of Substance D, a powerful recreational drug so named for causing “dumbness, despair, desertion and death.” Fully a fifth of America is addicted to some drug or another in Dick’s near-future, spawning a massive chemical-dependency industry and invasive, Big Brother-style state surveillance on every street and driveway.
Arctor — who, in one of his sad, wandering reveries, admits that he gladly abandoned his wife and children and predictable, workaday world for the “horrors” and “little wonders” of addiction — lives in a festering Anaheim tract home with a pair of D-addled moochers: James Barris, a snide provocateur played by Robert Downey Jr. (“Chaplin”), and Ernie Luckman, a gullible dope with ludicrous fashion sense played by Woody Harrelson (“White Men Can’t Jump”).
Unbeknownst to his roommates — or to his winsome drug-dealer girlfriend, Donna (Winona Ryder) — Arctor is simultaneously casing them for leads in the ongoing war against Substance D. By virtue of a “scramble suit” that projects a surreal, ever-shifting welter of human forms, Arctor’s true identity is not even known to his superior, the like-attired Hank. In the movie’s defining inside-out moment, Hank suggests to Arctor that Arctor might be his lead suspect. Arctor, with his severed brain hemispheres, thinks he might be right.
Such themes of fractured identity are endemic to Dick’s vision of the future, but “Scanner” — unlike “Total Recall” and “Blade Runner,” both based on his stories — lacks the neat, conventional shape to make good on the hook. This is not a ride in any sense; it’s despairing, diffuse and just a bit ponderous, with an implication of capitalist corruption to rival anything in Linklater’s upcoming “Fast Food Nation.”
It shows us something far-out but not so far-fetched: An establishment so screwed up that it can actually match beat-for-beat the paranoid delusions of its most deranged outcasts.
>> Rated R (drug and sexual content, profanity and a brief violent
>> images), 100 min. Grade: B