Hollywood has never done justice to Philip K. Dick, but it’s not for lack of talent.
Luminaries Ridley Scott, Paul Verhoeven, John Woo and Steven Spielberg have overseen the cinematic materialization of Dick’s works. All met with varying levels of quality and entertainment value, beginning in 1982 with the bastardization of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (aka Blade Runner). Perhaps it’s because their efforts have been controlled by studio hatchet men that, in the end, all of those films were guilty of glossing over the rough, stark edges of the enigmatic author’s prose. When indie fave Richard Linklater eschewed an opportunity to direct a Harry Potter film in favor of tackling A Scanner Darkly, the prospect arose that at last Tinseltown might faithfully adapt Dick’s bleak, abstruse vision.
Many consider Dick’s acclaimed 1977 novel to be his best work. Mirroring his own odyssey through the drug culture, the semi-autobiography incorporates most of Dick’s familiar literary themes and devices–drug abuse, the deconstruction of reality, the intrusion of police and government into our lives. As doper-cum-cop Bob Arctor, Keanu Reeves fills the role of the beleaguered protagonist who finds himself entangled in a large and complicated societal plot. Winona Ryder plays Donna, Bob’s pusher-cum-romantic interest, a duplicitous woman who alternatively helps and hinders the hero.
Under the alias Fred, Bob works as an undercover narcotics agent in Orange County, Calif. “seven years from now.” Cloaked in a shape-shifting “scramble suit” to shield his true identity from others (including his coworkers), Fred is assigned to surveil his own residence, which he shares with Barris (Robert Downey Jr.) and Luckman (Woody Harrelson), a couple of SoCal slackers battling their own addictions. Unfortunately, Bob has fallen prey to the drug du jour, Substance D, a highly addictive hallucinogen that can, over time, cause the user’s consciousness to split in two while inducing a folie à deux between the distinct personalities.
Bob’s collective household spends their days warding off paranoia and boredom but in the process project their tedium onto the audience. Long, half-baked diatribes on everything from law enforcement spying to an accurate count of the number of gears on a stolen bicycle permeate a script that is long on verbiage but low on drama.
And therein lies the rub: Linklater’s slavish devotion to the source material inhibits any meaningful effort to explicate, streamline or update it (the same affliction plaguing those Potter films he fled). The terrific, if indulgent, performance by Downey notwithstanding, there’s little emotional investment in the characters, making their respective tussles with reality and fantasy feel distant and dissonant. Bob’s duality is intriguing, but it ultimately boils down to a taciturn cop keeping tabs on his equally dreary doppelganger. Further plot turns eventually clarify Bob’s actual role in this surreal morality play, but not before you begin yearning for the final curtain to fall. When a semi-conscious Bob (and with Keanu, how can you tell the difference?) is forcibly admitted to a rehabilitative commune named “New Path,” A Scanner Darkly ends where many similarly situated works would begin, or at least transition.
Even Linklater’s pièce de résistance, a revival of the partially animated technique of interpolated rotoscoping he employed in 2001’s Waking Life, blanches and deadens the actors’ emotive abilities. As I imagined the same film absent the visually arresting device, I envisioned a mediocre cautionary tale whose leitmotif, for all its high-brow aspirations, emits the dated mustiness of a “Just Say No” ad.
Make no mistake, Linklater is one of America’s most talented auteurs, honing a diverse filmography that includes everything from the Before Sunrise/Sunset series to Jack Black’s The School of Rock. And, while his work here is assured and polished, it’s also pretentious and opaque when filtered into Dick’s helter-skelter universe.
A Scanner Darkly draws its namesake from 1 Corinthians 13, which contains the phrase “For now we see through a glass, darkly.” In the case of Linklater’s incarnation, the same can be said for the silver screen.
A Scanner Darkly opens Friday in select theaters.