Many of the quirky film techniques in Richard Linklater's "A Scanner Darkly" are not only likable, but fit the story: the fast-forwarding, the frequent forays into people's imaginations and memories. The movie is also animated in the same way that Linklater did for 2001's "Waking Life" where the animation looks like the actors. It's the most obvious technique but also the one that seems in some ways most unnecessary.
The animated Keanu Reeves stars as Robert Arctor, an undercover cop living in an imaginary future of Anaheim, Calif. "A Scanner Darkly" is based on a novel by sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick, and this time we can safely say the author never saw a future that wasn't bleak. People are constantly being watched by the government, primarily for infractions of drug laws but also for any other law-breaking. The only unmonitored place on this portion of the earth is an organization called New Path, which is kind of like an IRS that keeps track of minds and behavior rather than bank accounts. People who speak out against all the surveillance are quickly removed.
Arctor lives in a house with a few delinquents on the government's most-watched list (Robert Downey Jr. and Woody Harrelson). But the feds don't know which one he is, thanks to special shape-shifting suits that all the agents wear to disguise their identities so they can't endanger each other. Such a setup of double-dealing and paranoia undoubtedly aids Linklater's signature preoccupation with the philosophical.
Sometimes it can seem like a movie version of a day in the life of all the weirdest characters from "Six Feet Under." But it's also frequently funny and the scenario is sort of believable. "Sin City" by comparison legitimized a laughable narrative with the beautifully dark images of a live-action graphic novel. This time the cartoonishness has the opposite effect, distancing you from an otherwise engrossing story. (It's especially amusing that with all the so-called innovative animation Linklater sticks to the kind of standard camerawork seen in most television shows.) "A Scanner Darkly" can be very enjoyable as long as you don't mind its innovative look, or expect the film to live up to it. (R) ***