There's a lot of reasons why I should've hated A Scanner Darkly: I don't normally like the cast, I find Richard Linklater a hit-and-miss director, and I definitely disliked Waking Life, his first foray into "digital rotoscoping", in which live actors are filmed and then painted over with a computer – a technique used again here. Hell, I'm not even that big a fan of science fiction. But this, the eighth feature based on a Philip K. Dick story and supposedly the most faithful of all the adaptations, worked for me.
For starters, unlike those effects-saturated Dick films (Total Recall, Minority Report, Blade Runner, et al), A Scanner Darkly is set in a depressingly realistic suburban future ("7 years from now"). Outside of some crazy holographic suits that are constantly shifting between millions of identities, the story could take place today. Sure, there's the usual Big Brother stuff, and the conceit of an insanely addictive designer drug called Substance-D, which is so powerful that it's got 20% of the population hooked on it, but those are just minor extensions of what we already deal with in 2006. Nevertheless, the film explores a common theme of Dick's, which is the questioning of reality.
Here, Linklater's rotoscoped visuals work perfectly: you are seeing Keanu Reeves, but you aren't seeing Keanu Reeves. You are seeing a simulation of Keanu Reeves, who in turn plays a drug addict named Bob Arctor, who in turn leads a double life as Officer Fred, a covert operative for the police, showing up to meetings in one of those shape-shifting suits. His latest assignment is to literally spy on himself (his superiors not knowing that he is, in fact, Bob Arctor) and his two deadbeat roommates – played, often hilariously, by Robert Downey Jr. and Woody Harrelson.
It's a stroke of genius, casting marijuana activist Harrelson and frequently-arrested substance abuser Downey in a film about drug addiction. And then there's Rory Cochrane as their tragicomic Substance-D loving friend (another bit of clever casting: Cochrane is best known as eternal stoner Slater in Linklater's Dazed and Confused) and Winona Ryder, coming out of semi-retirement (after her shoplifting incident, which some say was related to her own problems with pills) to play Bob's girl, and possibly his target, and possibly something else.
Too lazily-paced to make a good detective story, A Scanner Darkly slowly reveals itself to be a profoundly sad tale of drug addiction and the human beings who lose their lives to it. This film is not for everybody, but I was surprised at how much I liked it and was haunted by it. It's truly unique, worth seeing by open-minded audiences.