Keanu Reeves enters Philip K. Dick's sci-fi world via Richard Linklater's rotoscoped animation in a perfect match of form, content, and bizarro self-reflexive paranoia. A Scanner Darkly is based on the 1977 novel about an undercover cop who finds himself getting addicted to a powerful mind-altering drug, and as usual in Dick's work (he wrote the stories and novels Blade Runner, Minority Report, and Total Recall are based on, among others), all too soon you can't be sure who's who, what's what, and whether or not anything is real at all.
Reeves is Bob, an addict of "Substance D", a pill that creates schizophrenic states, and he is also Fred, an undercover narcotics officer who is ordered by his anonymous superiors to spy on himself. Fred's official world is replete with double-blinds: when he's on official business, he wears a dazzling "scramble suit" that obfuscates his identity. Bob's world, by comparison, looks very much like a contemporary slacker's den where friends played by Woody Harrelson, Robert Downey Jr., and Winona Ryder drop by to get high and yammer on about their pet theories.
Dick's twisted storytelling is happily matched by the computerized animation that Linklater has used to great effect in Waking Life. (It also makes a surprise appearance in Lars von Trier's The Five Obstructions.) Unsettlingly real and strangely two-dimensional at once, this technique gives a doped-up and tripped-out sheen to the action; the ever-shifting visuals become one more way the story is distanced from graspable reality. While Bob/Fred sinks further and further into drug-inspired uncertainty, the heady images approximate his untethered mental state--all the while reminding us that both are somehow still based on a dangerous reality just underneath.
Why won't his coke-dealing girlfriend Donna (Winona Ryder) sleep with him? Which of the stoned fools that masquerade as his friends are traitors? Can anybody be trusted?
A first in its sub genre, A Scanner Darkly is a kind of slacker sci-fi, which is to say there is more yapping on couches, in diners and in cars than there is wiz-bang futuristic action. Woody Harrelson rants about a stolen bicycle, Downey Jr. ogles waitresses. Just as in Waking Life, his 1991 indie sensation Slacker, and his milestone gen-x romances Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, Linklater is happy to let his characters talk, even if that talk is only tangentially related to the plot. A Scanner Darkly is not for everybody--an audience hoping for an animated sci-fi action-adventure is bound to be disappointed. (Cowboy Bepop will serve you better.) But for those open to the charms of Dick's acute uncertainty, Downey Jr.'s rants, and the ever-shifting rotoscoping, A Scanner Darkly is a handsome and mindwarping movie that has cult hit written all over it.