Richard Linklater gives an audacious cinematic adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s 1977 novel about corporate/government surveillance of a public led by their noses with drug addictions similarly fueled and fed by the “system.” Given the novel’s scattershot method of dipping in and out of a reflexive reality occupied by a group of drug addicts and state-employed wonks, Linklater’s use of rotoscoping (see Waking Life) adds a veneer of narrative information that causes you to further question the identity puzzles presented in the story.
Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) is an undercover Los Angeles narcotics cop who wears a “scramble suit” that disguises his identity, even to his employers, behind an ever-shifting amalgam of physical appearances. Arctor himself has become addicted to a drug called “Substance D” and is so far removed from his personal sense of identity that he puts what little faith he has in the hope that the all-seeing scanner will view him clearly.
Set seven years in the future the movie immediately submerges you in its comic paranoid atmosphere. A young drug-affected guy, Charles Freck (Rory Cochrane) scratches all over his nude body at real or imagined aphids that attack him.
It’s a specific brand of insect dread that William Friedkin’s upcoming thriller Bug explores with accelerating visceral detail. Freck desperately phones his friend Jim Barris (Robert Downey Jr.) who requests that Freck bring him samples of the aphids in a jar.
We can tell by Barris’ wry and distant tone that he’s not a shrink or even much a friend to Freck but he’s the closest person the poor guy can talk to. Freck nervously drives to a diner where he and Barris engage in a superficially lofty conversation about the extent of Freck’s addiction to Substance D (causes “dumbness, despair, desertion and death”) before retiring to a mini-mart to acquire inexpensive ingredients that Barris will magically turn into another mind-altering substance.
It’s inside this intimate world of codified self-destruction that Bob Arctor resides in a low-rent Anaheim cul-de-sac with Barris and Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson) an equally wobbly addict. The three live a dead-end frathouse existence that mocks society with a pre-disastered sense of skeptical autonomy.
The intellectual apathy that the men rely on as their moral imperative for pursuing oblivion is to be savored as when Barris brings a newly purchased bicycle into their house. Acquired from a neighbor, the ostensibly stolen bike’s gear count gets considerable attention as an object of animated debate among Luckman, Arctor and their mutual friend and drug dealer Donna (Winona Ryder). Here, as in other scenes, Linklater embraces Dick’s source material for its inherent humor and let’s the comedy soar.
Linklater sticks to the narrative flow of Philip K. Dick’s novel without embellishing it with current sociopolitical realities that the book foreshadowed. In so doing, the director contains the author’s enigmatic work as it pinpoints all-consuming aspects of our modern existence—the pervasive use drugs and surveillance to stifle freedom of thought and action. MTW