Director: Richard Linklater
Cast: The voices of Wiley Wiggins, Trevor Jack Brooks, Robert C. Solomon, Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, Charles Gunning, David Sosa, Alex Jones, Richard Linklater
MPAA Rating: (for language and some violent images)
Running Time: 1:39
Release Date: 10/19/01
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Review by Mark Dujsik
It’s quite safe to say that films like Waking Life come about once in a blue moon. It’s also safe to say that you’ve never seen anything quite like it. It’s a rare and groundbreaking film that combines the experience of walking through an art museum and sitting in on a philosophy class into one rich, vibrant film full of life and endless possibilities. All of this is achieved using an innovative technique which animates already filmed footage into whatever form director Richard Linklater sees fit. The technique gives the film a dreamlike quality, and that is exactly what it’s going for. There have been many breakthroughs in animation over the past few years, and this ranks among one of the more important ones. This is as unique a film that will come along this year and possibly for some time. I have a feeling that watching Waking Life is, to a lesser extent, kind of like how it must have felt seeing Fantasia or 2001: A Space Odyssey when they were first released.
Waking Life is also similar to those films in that it has a unique narrative style. This is a free-flowing narrative, not even restrained to the confines of following the main character. Finding any trace of a story would essentially be summed up as an unnamed man (voice of Wiley Wiggins) trying to discover whether he is asleep or awake. It seems as though he is trapped in a constant dream from which he cannot awake, and the people he meets either reinforce that theory, help him discover ways out of or further into it, or tell him about something regarding philosophical theories. The movie is a series of discussions—mostly monologues—that delve into human behavior, the human condition, art, reincarnation, evolution, the afterlife, the difference between theory and action, society, the media and, of course, dreams. Only later in the film does it take on any appearance of a linear narrative when the man actually starts to wonder if he is alive or dead and begins meeting people he’s sure he’s already met before.
The movie provides ample hints for us and the character for determining whether or not he is dreaming. For example, you cannot read finer print nor can you adjust light levels in your sleep. All of this is stated as a way for the man to have lucid dreams—the kind in which you are an active participant, controlling what happens—which may or may not help him escape. It also provides one of many sight gags in which he goes to a light switch only to discover it does not work. Another includes a man who states that the human body is made mostly of water and then fills to the brim with the substance. Still another involves a man who discusses evolution while a fish evolves in the background. That his head looks ready to explode at any minute is another fun detail. All of this is possible because of that technique.
The scenes themselves range from humorous to intellectually stimulating to frightening. There’s one scene with an inmate who yells at, I can only assume, the guards and everyone who put him in jail as to what he will do to them after he gets out. It’s a haunting scene, which really delves into the darkest recesses of the human psyche. Then there’s another scene involving two men discussing guns, which ends in an unintentional and violent display of stupidity. The scene also employs bullet-holes appearing on the screen as the man tells his story. Two men in a movie discuss the importance of film, and a few social protests are thrown in for good measure, one of which ends with a man lighting himself on fire as passersby continue on indifferent. Another noteworthy one places Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy continuing a conversation that they had in an earlier Linklater film Before Sunrise.
In addition to the multiple philosophical ideas that are employed, a few artistic styles are also used. I noticed an ample display of impressionism for the backgrounds and many cases in which the characters appear in almost comic-book form. Characters can change from instant to instant, and while some look startlingly similar to their original subjects, others just appear to be squiggles randomly moving around. It’s the perfect blend for a movie that discusses Nietzsche, Descartes, St. Thomas Aquinas, Aristotle, and existentialism.
Waking Life really may not seem a film likely to come from Linklater, who directed Slacker, Dazed and Confused, and SubUrbia, but it is an obvious next step in the generation he seems so fond of. People are growing up quickly, and these are difficult times we live in. It’s a completely appropriate moment to stop and think about ourselves as human beings for at least an hour and a half. The film ends on an obviously ambiguous note, which just adds to many things that the film gives us to think about. If there’s one thing to learn from the film, it’s that the journey, not the destination, is what’s important.
Copyright © 2001 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.