With A Scanner Darkly, the guy who made stoner classics like Dazed and Confused and Waking Life offers a much bleaker take on drugs. ''I've always been interested in people who are self-medicating, or escaping,'' says director Richard Linklater, who comes down on the don't do it side of the issue. As did Philip K. Dick, who ended Scanner, his far-out 1977 sci-fi novel about addiction, with a bitter afterword listing all his friends felled by drugs. ''I related to it a lot,'' says Linklater of Scanner's message. ''With what little I've seen of that world, I always saw the upside, but wow, there's a horrible downside. Is it worth it? The price these people pay for a little bit of fun is just unbelievable, and that's what this story's about.''
Shot in the same distinctive style as Waking Life Linklater recorded the film in traditional live-action, and then had animators paint over every frame Scanner tells the tale of Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves), an undercover drug agent investigating his friends while hooked on something nasty called Substance D. ''Yeah, it's dark,'' Linklater says. ''It's as dark as your paranoia could be. But at the same time, it's very funny, too, so it's something you don't see in a movie a lot, which is comedy and tragedy coexisting.'' Robert Downey Jr., who plays an addict named Barris, digs one scene that's a good example of such duality. ''I like how excited Barris gets about some bike he just bought while strung out on D,'' he says, laughing. ''He's like, 'It's total, total providence!' about some secondhand, shot-out nine-speed bike.'' He pauses. ''It's so sad.''