Richard Linklater's trippy and sinister bad-vibe whatchamacallit A Scanner Darkly might be described as an animated movie, only the animation consists of live-action footage that's been painstakingly drawn over, a method known as ''interpolated rotoscoping.'' The actors, such as Keanu Reeves, Woody Harrelson, and Winona Ryder, look more or less like themselves, and so do the settings (scuzzy stoner living rooms, fluorescent surveillance offices), but every surface, every face, has been heightened with pastel blotches that melt and shift like liquid shadow; the effect is akin to paint-by-numbers stained glass that moves.
This is the technique Linklater employed in his 2001 dream fantasia Waking Life, and using it, for the first time, in a narrative feature, the director proves, at least technically, a canny mainstream experimentalist. A Scanner Darkly has a sensuous heat-scan surface; you feel you could almost read the blood pulse in those faces. Yet that's more or less all there is to do at the movie, since once you get past the images you realize that what's beneath the rotoscoping is a bleary-eyed talkfest of psychotic sci-fi gloom.
In a vaguely fascist suburban dystopia, a fellow (Rory Cochrane) with bugs crawling all over him tries to wash them off, only he can't, since they're a hallucination brought on by Substance D, a drug as perilously destructive as meth. Robert Downey Jr., as a yammering dealer of the stuff, talks sinister fey circles around himself, and Keanu Reeves, as an undercover cop, gets hooked on Substance D. Ordered to spy on (or ''scan'') himself, he finds his sanity in splinters, as the two hemispheres of his brain begin to compete with each other.
Are you with me? Neither am I. A Scanner Darkly has a few wondrous conceits, like Reeves' disguise a blurry suit that's a collage of morphing identities. It's surely a metaphor of some sort, but I confess I could barely make heads or tails out of anything in A Scanner Darkly. Linklater, adapting Philip K. Dick's 1977 novel, has stayed true to its paranoid conundrums, adding a shaggy counterculture indolence all his own. We stare at the actors as they sit in decaying rooms, yapping in a stoned torpor, and the film keeps introducing motifs Reeves at the surveillance monitor, sex with a girl who shifts identity that go nowhere. It's as if the controlling forces at work were destined to remain oblique and out of reach. Some would say that's the essence of the Dick universe. Yet this celebrated writer may be more fun to think about than he is to experience.
Dick, who may have struggled with schizophrenia, wove his mental torment into a vision of a government that tampers with minds and souls, and there's a glum stupefaction to his whole are-we-android-or-human?, my-brain-is-eating-me! circularity, which isn't that far removed from what certain homeless people gibber about on the sidewalk. In A Scanner Darkly, we're watching other people freak out, but the film is maddening to sit through because their freak-outs never become ours.