``A Scanner Darkly" is the latest movie to be adapted from a novel by the late science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick , whose previous books have become ``Blade Runner," ``Minority Report," and ``Total Recall." Hollywood tends to turn Dick's work upside down and drain the dread out, then slap a macho matinee idol on the poster and call it a day. Not this time.
The star of ``Scanner" is the decidedly soft-focus Keanu Reeves , and the director is Richard Linklater , the Austin-based maverick who gave us ``Dazed and Confused," the ``Before Sunrise"/``Before Sunset" duo, and, in a brief mainstream fit, ``School of Rock." The novel, too, is Dick's most personal, a barely disguised sci-fi parable of his own troubles with drug addiction. (The novel came out in 1977 ; the author died of heart failure in 1982. )
So what we have here is a junkie movie with a generous dose of future shock. The closest antecedent is David Cronenberg's underrated 1991 adaptation of William S. Burrough's ``Naked Lunch," and like that film ``Scanner" finds squishy metaphors for addiction everywhere it turns.
Set ``seven years from now," ``A Scanner Darkly" follows the rapidly crumbling life of one Bob Arctor (Reeves), a California layabout who appears to do nothing but hang out with his loser buddies and pop regular hits of Substance D, a narcotic to which, we're told, 20 percent of the US population is addicted.
In reality -- or what passes for reality in the movie -- Arctor is a narc who works for a faceless government bureaucracy, regularly reporting to a nondescript office building to drop the dime on his housemates, Barris (Robert Downey Jr. ) and Luckman (Woody Harrelson ). Since the secrecy of his identity is paramount, Arctor must don a ``scramble suit" that randomizes his facial features a thousand times a second: It's like one of those old mix-and-match children's books gone nuclear.
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Code-named ``Fred," he takes orders from ``Hank," who informs him that the most suspicious character in the house is this Bob Arctor fellow and they had best set up a full-scanner surveillance system immediately. This means that Arctor is now charged with narcing on himself, which might be manageable if his own increasing reliance on Substance D wasn't doing a number on his frontal lobes. (It also wreaks havoc with his attempts to romance Winona Ryder's Donna , a possible dealer and the only thing in his world that hasn't been strip-malled, overdeveloped, or ground down.)
Oh, wait, I forgot to mention something: The entire movie is animated. Rotoscoped, actually -- a process in which footage of live actors is drawn over so that it resembles a quasi-realistic cartoon. Linklater has used this technique before, in his wild and woolly 2001 head trip ``Waking Life, " but here he yokes it to a story line and an A-list cast, with spooky if not always convincing results.
The effect is painterly. Characters' hair becomes fluid strips of highlights, their jaws outlined with crisp black strokes. Features seem to float atop faces. At times, the interplay of tones and hues and shades mesmerizes you right out of the movie, and given the preponderance of stoner monologues, you welcome the diversion. Linklater and his effects crew turn the film into a brooding comic book, naughty thought balloons, human-size insects, and all. It helps that some of the actors -- Downey as a manipulative chatterbox, Harrelson as a big, drugged-out sheepdog -- are cartoons already.
Would ``A Scanner Darkly" be as interesting if it were shot normally? Probably not, but that's beside the point; the visual surrealism matches the characters' free-floating anxiety. This is a movie about losing one's grip -- about the practical part of your brain watching the irresponsible part grab control of the helm and take the ship straight to the bottom -- and like any addict's story, it's boring, ugly, sad, and terribly human.
And surprisingly funny. Dick captured the slaphappy companionability of the user's life as well as the loneliness, and Linklater, sticking closely to the novel, gets it too. There's a loopy Lewis Carroll logic to the banter here -- an 18-speed bicycle that's suddenly 11 speeds because the guys are doing the math wrong, or Barris's snare for the cops that consists of leaving the front door open and a note saying ``Come on in." As junkie comedy goes, this is pretty good, and Harrelson and (especially) Downey play it like a wacked-out Abbott and Costello.
Reeves plays it straight, as a man desperately trying to hold it together would; it's a quiet, smart performance, and possibly his most animated (sorry, I just had to). Eventually, Bob Arctor's narrowing world constricts to a single point, and the semblance of a plot kicks back in. There's conspiracy here, as there is in all of Dick's books, and it wraps the film up with a moving but somewhat neat bowtie.
The actual finale -- and Linklater makes sure it's the last thing we see -- is the list of the author's real-life friends who fell to drugs, a list that included himself. Moralize if you want, but Dick knew about human frailty and wrote about it with pitiless clarity. ``A Scanner Darkly" quite literally draws the same conclusions he did.
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com.