After the rapture of Dazed and Confused, director Richard Linklater wallowed for a while in low fare, before slowly rebuilding his heft: Waking Life an exercise in pretty pith, School of Rock an almost-grown-up film, and Before Sunset -- if you believe the hype -- finally adult.

A preview for A Scanner Darkly, or even a description of Linklater's new film -- Woody, Winona, and Keanu share a drug-addled lifestyle in a cartoon sci-fi melodrama -- might suggest a return to quality quicksand. But instead the director walks in the footprints of indie-minded oddballs like Peter Jackson (King Kong) and Sam Raimi (Spiderman), crafting something immediate and meaningful with a bigger budget, a marquee cast, and Hollywood criteria.

And what he gets is the perfect merging of the slacker and the paranoid aesthetics. Though I suppose the right slacker might tell you he's already experimented with paranoia, here is the perfect stew. Linklater took the neat ramblings of Philip K. Dick, he of Blade Runner and Total Recall. Then he had them rotoscoped: that is, the film is a cartoon, its drawings playfully and often epileptically drawn onto live-action film. He threw in the biggest hemp advocate on the western seaboard, a convicted shoplifter, and an action hero whose presence is a Stoner lodestone -- and topped it off with the beloved verbal diarrhea of Robert Downey, Jr., who can barely breathe here without inducing laugh-riot. Trotting out some of that diarrhea recently at a press day held in a hotel on Central Park South, Downey Jr. said that lighting, makeup and other such diversions were absent -- the footage being a mere template for cartoonists -- a boon which surely glued these ingredients together.

While the movie is quite exciting, and the story sustains itself easily, all you need to know of the plot is that Keanu -- excuse me, Reeves -- plays a futuristic narc in a Big Brother era when narcs wear shape-shifting suits to disguise their identities; his assignment at hand is surveillance on his own community of friends, who may just be links in a mammothly dangerous drug ring.

The movie's success comes not in its plotting but rather in its manner. High-end druggie banter is a staple of contemporary film partly pioneered by Linklater. In this film, though, the druggies really are being bugged, with apocalyptic (and dark) surveillance scanners. But what the paranoid mind really traffics in is confusion and uncertainty; this is where imagination and potential find their fever pitch, and this is Scanner's secret. The paranoia is so deep here that it infects fundamental behavior, and creates conspiracy from the basic units of interaction -- concerns already muddled for the slacker. The Downey Jr. character buys a bike on the street with the understanding that it has 18 gears, and is then awestruck when his cabal discovers only six gears in the rear and only three in the front, for a total of nine [you're supposed to multiply, Luddite reader!]. But then again, maybe they've miscounted. These questions are unanswerable, but they're cause for lots of sweat, plenty of stress, and maybe a full revolution. Downey Jr. described a casual rehearsal process, wherein the director would ask, 'What would a tweaked-out propellerhead say?' and the answer would arise collaboratively. The resulting, high-pitched conspiracy in the mundane is above and beyond Philip K. Dick, and smacks of Pynchon tragi-comedy.

Who knows and does it really matter which potential factor -- the future, the rotoscoping, the drugs, or the all-seeing scanner -- creates the strange scenario? Sci-fi is often built on the simple premise that the future holds more technology, but ultimately hides more secrets and is less intelligible. Advanced technical knowledge is a-dime-a-dozen in Scanner's world, as each of the main characters offers automatic diagnosis of bizarre auto repair problems. But the standard framework is off, and its mundane expressions can be so weird as to be scary. In one scene, a character is mocked for suggesting an escalating argument might turn violent, but the dynamics are so fragmented that the viewer also flinches at potential shootings and mistaken lead pipings. Downey Jr. agrees that the best scenes see matters "escalate," "and you don't know who can trust who." Part of the achievement is that the scenes are upsetting and highly comic at once, never descending into slapstick. I'm more of the school that science fiction is always dated rather than always timeless, but this film is a pleasure anyway.

It's also impressive to be unembarrassed by such bald-faced casting. No beef with Reeves here, but has anyone ever been so culturally pigeonholed? Downey put further that Scanner was partly about "a generation of actors who haven't gotten through the last decade in one piece" -- and Linklater has surely claimed this material by filtering it through a biographically post-disaster cast. He is skilled in cutting through irony, and uses Reeves' strengths to deliver hackneyed lines about personal shame and pursuit of self. Deadpan can be a healthy mode, and Linklater is masterful enough to have Reeves see "death rising from the earth" in the form of budding drug flora -- and create an epic chill while preserving enriching hints of ironic distance.

Reeves' world is so disaggregated that he puts faith into the scanner, hoping its 'objective' visions can reconstruct some semblance of order. A desperate hope, but then certainly some propaganda machines can be positive -- say, when they mean publicity for a good cause. Exhibit A: Linklater's other forthcoming project, Fast Food Nation, which makes nonfiction vignettes out of the modern awareness/activist classic. Linklater will certainly repurpose and even reclaim Fast Food stars like Avril Lavigne and Wilmer Valderrama, but time will only tell where this modern master will leave them off.

A Scanner Darkly opens on Friday, July 7.

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