Now that Philip K. Dick’s drug-fueled dystopic vision of an America living under unlimited surveillance has been nearly realized, Richard Linklater’s cinematic adaptation of A Scanner Darkly feels like small potatoes. Truth is, Linklater is a “small” director in the non-pejorative sense — until now, his loftiest effort had been Waking Life, a film that gracefully, verbosely meandered toward its grand theological and philosophical claims. Perhaps conscious of his anti-dramatic tendencies, Linklater uses the same digital rotoscope animation as in Waking Life to sheath a serious project with ostensible, but not actual, hallucinatory visuals, an attempted diversion from the dragging inertia of a too-faithful, too-grounded version of Dick’s sci-fi classic. It’s a defensive strategy that does justice to the talents of neither Dick nor Linklater.
A Scanner Darkly takes place in the immediate future, where one-fifth of the U.S. population, including protagonist Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves), is addicted to Substance D and narcotics officers routinely monitor for potential illegal activities using holographic scanners. Arctor is one such officer, who, because his identity remains secret behind a “scramble suit,” is commanded to keep tabs on himself. But so aimless is Linklater’s direction that he barely makes understandable Arctor’s D-induced identity confusion. Unsurprisingly, more emphasis gets placed on Arctor’s friends, hapless countercultural slackers, while the rotoscope animation mostly remains tied to a tame, clean realism. Both decisions are ultimately detrimental as the story’s paranoia never builds to the political critique or tragedy of consciousness accomplished by Dick’s prose. A Scanner Darkly deserves weight; Linklater treats it as light as a nicotine buzz.
Opens July 7