Reflecting a period when the writing stopped and the drugs took over, Philip K. Dick's 1977 novel A Scanner Darkly takes place in a not-so-distant-future filled with early-'70s slang and references to Simon & Garfunkel and Planet Of The Apes movies. Where most of Dick's writing blew modern concerns up to future-size, Scanner barely qualifies as science fiction. By the novel's reckoning, drug abuse and the as-yet-unnamed War On Drugs are just two parts of a serpent devouring its own tail. It's short on fantastic conceits and long on paranoia, dope-fueled conversations, and bureaucratic hypocrisy. It's as if Dick couldn't imagine the situation changing, no matter how many years went by.
Using the same computer-assisted, traced-from-life animation he employed for Waking Life, Richard Linklater has turned A Scanner Darkly into a film that's simultaneously the most faithful Dick adaptation to date (as true as Blade Runner and Minority Report were in spirit) and something that could as easily come from today's headlines as from Watergate-era paranoia. Taking government surveillance to a level beyond phone and bank records, Keanu Reeves plays an undercover agent charged with living the lifestyle of a full-time drug user in order to trace a deadly drug named Substance D back to its source. Away from his job, he wears a suit that makes him look like a faint blur of faces and features. Even his superiors don't know which of the handful of suspects in his circle of friends he is; only his addict pals (Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, and Winona Ryder) get to see his true face.
A lot of terrific Dick prose—always the most underrated element of his writing—makes it to the screen, and it's hard to think of a better cast, or at least one whose wide range of well-publicized offscreen drug experiences could give the film more resonance. Which makes it all the more frustrating that the film doesn't quite work, and that it drags from episode to episode—some are brilliant, most merely intriguing—with little momentum. Linklater keeps everything conceptually lively, but the drama stays inert, and Scanner's most striking element, the animation that was so perfect for Waking Life, works against it in the end. What ought to be a story of failing flesh and blood stays squarely in the realm of ideas. It's a head-trip that never gets beneath the skin.