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‘A Scanner Darkly’ presents eerie drug state

Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder take a semi-animated form in "A Scanner Darkly," based on Philip K. Dick's novel about his own drug abuse.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Linklater, you’ve landed lookers such as Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder and Robert Downey Jr. in your science fiction fantasy. What are you going to do now?

Paint over their pretty faces to make digital cartoon characters out of them, then put the actors through a hazy narcotic nightmare in which they ramble about in manic paranoia.

“A Scanner Darkly,” which premiered Thursday at the Cannes Film Festival, is the bleak underbelly of director Linklater’s teen-party romp “Dazed and Confused.” Adapted from the novel by sci-fi master Philip K. Dick, who based the story partly on his own drug abuse, “A Scanner Darkly” is a talky, twisted hodgepodge of sobering ideas centered on people who are anything but sober.

Linklater (“School of Rock,” “Slacker”) created the film the same way he made his 2001 philosophical ramble “Waking Life,” shooting the actors in live action then painting over them with shimmery digital animation.

The faces of Reeves, Ryder, Downey and co-star Woody Harrelson remain recognizable, yet the animation makes them appear as though they’re wandering through a living, breathing comic book.

“I had one question for Mr. Linklater, and that was: If I chew up the scenery, can you just animate it back in later?” Downey joked.

‘A graphic novel come to life’Linklater said overlaying animation on the actors was simply a creative choice, the same as deciding whether to shoot in color or black and white.

“It felt like this was the best way to tell this particular story,” Linklater said. “I think it looks cool, too. Kind of a graphic novel come to life.”

“A Scanner Darkly” is set seven years in the future, when a new drug called Substance D has arrived on the scene and gradually turns its users from suspicion to fear to paranoia regarding everyone around them.

Reeves plays an undercover cop assigned to spy on the activities of his circle of associates, including Ryder, Downey, Harrelson and “Dazed and Confused” co-star Rory Cochrane.

Abusing Substance D to maintain his cover, Reeves’ character loses himself in a schizoid personality disorder, a crisis that plays out externally in the cloak he and other undercover operatives wear to conceal their identities from one another by projecting ever-changing features on their faces.

The film is Linklater’s second to screen at this year’s Cannes festival, which ends Sunday. Linklater’s consumer satire “Fast Food Nation” played in the festival’s main competition, while “A Scanner Darkly” was in a secondary competition.

“A Scanner Darkly” debuts in U.S. theaters July 7, and “Fast Food Nation” opens next fall.

The reality-bending fiction of Dick, who died in 1982, has been frequently turned into films, including “Blade Runner,” based on his novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”, and the short-story adaptations “Minority Report,” “Total Recall” (from a tale titled “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale”) and “Paycheck.”