First up, I'll have to confess to not having read the 1977 novel by Philip K. Dick of the same name. Films based on Dick's works range from the sublime (Blade Runner) to the ridiculous (Minority Report) but even when they're done badly the ideas are always interesting. I'd read some lacklustre reviews of this one, but it pleasantly surprised me.
The first thing to say about the film itself is that, visually, it's stunning. It was shot in live action, and then animated in a 'painterly' style (by a team of artists), a technique which works beautifully with the surreal plot. Indeed, I'm not sure I would have enjoyed the film nearly so much live.
The action takes place 'seven years from now'; a deadly new drug, 'Substance D', is sweeping the USA, leading to a massive government response in terms of criminal law and surveillance. Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) is an undercover agent, living in the drug underworld along with Donna (Winona Ryder), Barris (Robert Downey Jr.) and various other unsavoury characters. But Bob is getting addicted to Substance D himself - and meanwhile, New Path, a seemingly-omnipresent corporation running rehabilitation clinics, begins to loom large... The plot is convoluted, containing numerous 'switches' (I was reminded of The Matrix, though ASD is far less fantastical in a scifi sense), but this only adds to the pervasive atmosphere of paranoia and unreality which is the film's chosen metier.
This is a film about drugs with a clear and definite moral take, but not a preachy message. In its approach to the topic, it's also (metaphorically) political in terms of the operation of drugs in society, and seems very contemporary in that regard. Reeves is for the most part good (I'll admit that I have a soft spot for him despite his fairly limited acting skills - but given what's happening to his character, this might be seen as appropriate) although some ponderously portentous monologues are problematic at times. I also found Downey Jr.'s hyperactive character irritating, but not to the point of exasperation. The dystopic setting itself is very nicely done. Overall, by no means a classic, but a very interesting little work - the gorgeous visual spectacle alone is worth the price of admission.