The eyes of the Lord are in every place,
keeping watch on the evil and the good.
Director/writer Richard Linklater sets his dystopian film “seven years from now,” but we soon see that he is aiming at the “now” when our government is whipping up fear and frenzy so that we will go along with an ever increasing amount of surveillance that threatens to destroy any meaningful privacy. Based on still another Philip K. Dick work (if only he could have lived to see his body of work treated like it was a goldmine for Hollywood!), the film is like Linklater’s Waking Life in that it is “rotoscope animation,” a form in which actors are photopgraphed the usual way with cameras, and then the computer graphics folk take over.
Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) is an undercover cop ordered to spy on his friends, the motor-mouthed Jim Barris (Robert Downey Jr.), the hanging loose Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson), the paranoid Charles Freck (Rory Cochrane), and the drug-addled lady-friend of Bob’s Donna Hawthorne (Winona Ryder). The guardians of society are worried about an unstoppable new drug called Substance D (or “Slow Death”) which draws its users into a dark world of suspicion, alienation and madness. Adding to this is the fact that every private moment is watched on a screen by someone else, there apparently being far more cameras implanted everywhere than the author of 1984 ever dreamt of.
The plotline is often as confusing as the addled minds of the characters, so this is one film that should be seen in company with others. (Indeed, some have noted, rightly, that the story really does not go anywhere.) The original story apparently grew out of Dick’s own experience with narcotics: at the end of the book (and film) there is a list of his friends who were drug-addicted, many of whom died as a result. He lists his own name—although he died from heart failure at the age of 53, his use of drugs were an important contributing factor to the breakdown of his health. Dick, writing in 1977, could scarcely have written a more telling commentary on our futile “war on drugs” and the paranoia and increased government surveillance accompanying our “war on terror” had he been alive today. His is a world one is glad to leave behind as one emerges from the theater, but then, as one becomes bombarded by the bad news of our times, the feeling arises that movie and “reality” are slowly converging. And the old question “Who is watching the watchers” will not go away.