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 copout, 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 hi-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.
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.