An amalgam of sci-fi suspense, slacker comedy and angst-infused character study, A Scanner Darkly is an unusual film despite that its most salient feature, the animation process known as interpolated rotoscoping, has become familiar from Charles Schwab commercials. Writer and director Richard Linklater used the technique to make Waking Life in 2001. (A cruder version created a buzz 15 years earlier when pop group A-Ha employed it for their music-video "Take on Me.") The flat, painterly quality of rotoscoping still surprises and delights, but A Scanner Darkly has more to recommend it than arty graphics-as befits a movie made from one of Philip K. Dick's most acclaimed novels.

It's the near future. The United States is experiencing an epidemic of the highly addictive and neurologically debilitating Substance D. The government has contracted with a Haliburtonesque corporation known as New Path to oversee everything from law enforcement to rehabilitation. Surveillance of all sorts is ubiquitous, with cameras scanning the streets and, under the urgency to defeat drug terrorism, prying into private homes.

The situation is such that undercover agent Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) is investigating his own roommates, Barris (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Luckman (Woody Harrelson), as well as his girlfriend, Donna (Winona Ryder). His task is to help track down the ultimate source of D rather than bust small-fry users, but that goal seems impossible when everybody suspects everyone else of duplicity. Barris, for example, has turned informant on Arctor, who in fact swallows D like vitamin C, yet he cultivates Arctor as an ally against the same narcs he reports to, all the while suspecting, correctly, that Arctor is spying on him...

The rampant paranoia of this brave new world makes the narrative difficult to follow, a situation complicated by the effects of D, which distorts perception and cognitive functions. Fortunately for the audience, A Scanner Darkly isn't plot-driven. A good deal of screen time is given over to Arctor's soul searching-how did I get here, and where am I, anyway?-or, conversely, to Barris and Luckman's stoner antics.

Downey and Harrelson do a good Cheech and Chong, their shtick thrown into relief by the behavior of their even more addled friend, Freck (Rory Cochrane), who exhibits advanced stages of neurological degeneration. In a scene that illustrates Linklater's approach to the material, Freck sardonically attempts suicide by swallowing pills with a middling bottle of Merlot, only to fall into a hallucinatory coma featuring a multi-eyed space alien reading aloud his sins from a scroll.

A Scanner Darkly might not be so amusing without the animation, which requires viewers to experience the film as the characters experience life in their jittery, hueless, out-of-register world. Rotoscoping also allows the animators to dramatize the scramble suit Arctor and other agents wear (to disguise their identities from one another, not the public), a neat metaphor for the rampant disorientation and distrust that predominates life in this dystopian future.

The director isn't glib about Dick's vision, however, and the movie cautions against the human impulse toward self-destruction as much as it condemns the people and institutions that exploit it. Already commentators are praising Linklater for making a timely statement about the politics of fear, or complaining that he wasn't more explicit in drawing parallels to current events. They miss the moral of the movie, which addresses matters more universal. If one morning we awaken to find ourselves living in an autocratic, or totalitarian, or fascist state, we have only ourselves to blame: We're all addicted to something, so why not enjoy what we cannot avoid? A Scanner Darkly reminds us how insidious this thinking can be.

-Rex Roberts