Slipped into the summer movie season like acid in your happy meal, Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly is a blockbuster of counterprogramming. No matter that the dude from The Matrix is its star — or would be, if he weren't half-hidden under a thick swath of digital paint. Linklater's return to Waking Life's surreally pulsing world of rotoscope animation — and his flashback to Philip K. Dick's like-titled drug dystopia of the late '70s — is a prefab cult flick pitched to a drastically underserved group of filmgoers: stoners, depressives, bookworms, conspiracy theorists, movie critics, and various other head-scratching freaks for whom the promise of Hollywood action sounds more like a threat. What a breath of fresh air this stifling, claustrophobic, boldly uningratiating vision of an American subculture's last gasp imparts to its contrarian core audience. (Call me a hopeless addict: I've seen it three times.)
Darkly is the key word here. Superman's vulnerabilities have nothing on those of Bob Arctor, aka Agent Fred (Keanu Reeves, plus computers), an undercover narcotics officer with a secret past and an unshakable addiction to the brain-damaging Substance D. Both cop and cop-out, this “ultimate everyman” might be the most fractured protagonist ever to grace an American movie: Assigned to spy and rat on his D-dropping friends, then on himself, the fried narc succumbs to his jones and eventually loses all but two brain cells, forgetting duty and identity alike. Adding insult to a psychic injury that's deep from the start, Arctor's bosses at the Orange County Police Precinct force him to conceal his true self (whatever that is) under a high-tech “scramble suit” — a kind of kaleidoscopic body-hologram that morphs at split-second intervals to reveal portions of men, women, and children of every variety. His corporate/government masters admiringly refer to their digitized puppet as a “vague blur”; we might call him an unreliable narrator, except that the world he's surveilling — controlled by a shadow cabal of Halliburtonian proportions — is more spun than he is. Even paranoids have enemies — and only a paranoid, perhaps, can see them clearly.
Printed in 1977, the year of Star Wars and Close Encounters, Dick's counterculture postmortem — which culminates in a list of drug-related casualties, including the author himself — is hardly escapist sci-fi or even sci-fi at all. That futuristic scramble suit, however metaphorically vivid, mainly served as a means for the author to slide his semi-autobiographical Fear and Loathing in Orange County past the publisher at the start of the Just Say No age. Similarly, Linklater's movie smuggles its unfashionably melancholy take on pushers and addicts under cover of the animated trifle — at the expense of approval by those who'd prefer it to be purely psychedelic, another cool distraction, more roller-coaster ride than bad trip.
Waking Life used essentially the same technology to sneak amateur philosophy into the art house, though that movie's euphoric “holy moments” are the opposite of this film's strategic buzz-kill. Scanner's initial dose of circuitous junkie jabber — the cast of recovering bad boys (Woody Harrelson, Robert Downey Jr.) lending extra authenticity to their characters' absurd rants about mountain-bike gears and “albino shape-shifting lizard bitches” — isn't liberating in the least. It's not even very funny, as befits a movie that consistently dares to forego entertainment in favor of verisimilitude. (A dying junkie is hilarious only to a filmmaker who hasn't really wanted to imagine one.)
Linklater, who has helmed a sequel (Before Sunset), a remake (Bad News Bears), and now a kind of double-vision riff on Dick's work and his own, relishes the cognitive dissonance that comes from the same-but-different style of reprise: Squint long enough at A Scanner Darkly and you see scrambled traces of every movie this chameleonic director has ever done. (Arctor's fuzzy memory of having fled his suburban family out of boredom is like Ethan Hawke's Sunset fantasy of escape becoming the darkest dawn.) Still, in deference to Dick and the tragedy of his own addiction, Scanner is a drug movie above all — and that movie ain't Dazed and Confused. In this fascist near-future, where an activist barking into a bullhorn gets Taser-blasted and carted off by SWAT-team cops, users are pitted against fellow users, against themselves. Whatever community the movie finds in the picture of self-medicating sad-sacks sharing bugged-out hallucinations in a tract-home shack gives way to the bleaker image of a lone pill-popper at work, peering at his friends through concealed cameras, doubting that his higher-ups, with their arsenal of invisible scanners, see him any less darkly.
Dick wasn't one for solutions — “There is no moral in this novel; it is not bourgeois,” he writes in the book's afterword — and neither is Linklater. There's hope in A Scanner Darkly, but only a sliver — just the momentary spark of two tiny lights in a sea of black, or the rare gift of a filmmaker whose fixes are paradox and contradiction. It makes sense that the most gripping images in Linklater's tweaked-out, color-flared eye-popper would be the simplest: blue-tinged close-ups of Arctor's beseeching face, hidden inside his corporate scramble suit just as Reeves the untouchable celebrity can only emote from behind a digital veil. However you look at it, it's the picture of modern alienation, of the ubiquitous man who knows he'll never really be seen.