A Scanner Darkly (15)

Dude, I'm not feeling myself
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In Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly, Keanu Reeves plays "Fred", a narcotics agent operating undercover to investigate a drug addict named Bob Arctor. Alternatively, Reeves plays a man named Bob Arctor, who is secretly moonlighting as a narcotics agent called Fred. Little wonder that, at one point, doctors tell Arctor/Fred that different parts of his brain have started functioning independently of each other, and are actually competing. You can't help wondering if this is Richard Linklater's way of drawing attention to his own multiple identity: far more fragmented than Bob/Fred, Linklater subdivides into the lyrical director of romantic diptych Before Sunrise and Before Sunset; the funky subculture chronicler of Slacker and Dazed and Confused; and the cheerful crowd-pleaser of School of Rock.

Then there's the Linklater who makes oblique, philosophical animations, 2001's Waking Life and now A Scanner Darkly. In fact, neither film is animation pure and simple. Both were made by filming live actors, then rotoscoping the results: loosely speaking, "painting" over the footage (although the process used here is actually digital). Waking Life used a variety of animation styles; here Linklater sticks to one, under the direction of Waking Life mainstay Bob Sabiston. The visual consistency means there's a more stable layer of reality to latch on to, however precarious: the characters in A Scanner Darkly are less prone to burst suddenly into flames, and this time, the whole image isn't forever wobbling like a lysergic blancmange.

A Scanner Darkly is adapted from a novel by Philip K Dick, science fiction's specialist in ontological anxiety. A key metaphor for its hero's chronic state of identity crisis is the "scramble suit", worn by undercover agents to remain incognito: the suit randomly shuffles fragments of countless different appearances, so that the agent resembles "a constantly shifting vague blur". Linklater makes the most of the scramble suit: wearing it, Arctor resembles a walking, talking kaleidoscope, a random Identikit shuffle of eyes, mouths, patches of clothing. In some sequences, we seem just to be staring at the animators' scramble suit software going through its cycles: but the spectacle is so hypnotic and various that you could watch it endlessly.

Much of the drama is only vestigially narrative; some scenes feel like an improvised stage play, notably when we see Arctor with his variously addled friends, played by Winona Ryder, Robert Downey Jr, Woody Harrelson and Rory Cochrane. They are all more or less damaged users of a powerful and ubiquitous drug, Substance D ("for Dumbness and Despair and Desertion" - and Death, naturally). The scenes in which the gang sit around shooting the increasingly whacked-out, circuitous breeze are priceless, with the authentic ring of fractured stoner logic. All the cast do hophead incoherence masterfully, down to the slightest inflection: after an insane dialogue about mislaying the gears on a bike, Downey caps the sequence with his subtly perfect delivery of the line, "We are all way too close to this..."

Reeves' peculiar career as a doyen of altered-states sci-fi seems to have left him with a core of unemotive detachment that makes him a stable, unifying presence in this film's fluid world: his underplaying comes into its own among the wilder turns that surround him. The animation somehow captures and accentuates what makes these performances extraordinary. Cochrane's bursts of crazy-eyed twitching would seem wildly overdone in live action: animated, they become show-stopping comic effects, all the more so because you're never sure whether they're all Cochrane or whether they've been drawn onto him, as it were. Downey, likewise, is more languidly manic than ever: he seems permanently on the verge of a swooning meltdown. But then, you can't be sure that his image on screen isn't actually going to melt down, the planes of his face swimming around as if about to come unhitched from his human form and revert to floating blotches of colour.

It's this uncanny effect of processed performance that makes A Scanner Darkly truly strange, more so than its brazenly surreal moments, such as Cochrane's encounter with a thousand-eyed alien. Despite dashes of techno-futurism, the film, like Dick's best fictions, is less about the future than about the contemporary condition: it's at once a disillusioned black farce about drug culture and an anxious extrapolation of the nightmares attendant on today's surveillance society.

As its hero's brain splits into competing parts, so the film itself has a paradoxical identity - live action? animation? both? neither? - that your eye and mind never quite get a purchase on. Many people, I know, felt Waking Life was amorphous neo-hippie claptrap, and they'll no doubt feel the same about A Scanner Darkly. But if you're interested in the strange, new, imaginative places that technology is leading film into, then this bizarre, inspired hallucination of a picture is definitely to be seen.