Richard Linklater has an interesting way of story telling. From movies like Dazed and Confused and A Scanner Darkly, it is evident that he has a knack for setting up a film’s narrative using supposed randomness shown in a very true to life kind of way. Waking Life is much like that, except broken up in such a way as to mimic a dream. Also like A Scanner Darkly, Waking Life uses real actors but is completely animated afterwards via rotoscope. The result is a very wordy philosophical journey through a man’s dream as he begins to dig deeper into themes such as existentialism, follies of society, and philosophies of art.
An unnamed man (Wiley Wiggins) is asleep, but what’s going on inside his head seems all too unreal for it to be his actual life. He begins wandering the dreamscape, meeting different people and hearing their thoughts on life and philosophy. This man’s dream takes a strange turn when he realizes that he is dreaming and is having a hard time waking up. As he begins dealing with his lucid dreaming, he also starts interacting more with these dream characters and learning more about what it means to dream, how it relates to life, and how to get out.
This is a very bizarre film, which is a very high compliment. There is almost no narrative at all, with the exception of the later conflict of the main character trying to get out of his dream. All up until that point, all we get is a series of random meetings between the main character and other people, or between two completely unknown characters without having Wiggins present at all. This makes it a very difficult movie to watch if you aren’t interested in the subject matter, but luckily if you aren’t quite into philosophy, you can at least look at the beautiful rotoscope animation that, at the time (in terms of live action films), was very new and still equally as remarkable.
Bob Sabiston, a computer scientist and animator at the MIT media lab, came up with a computer assisted rotoscoping process that was used for this film. In fact, Waking Life, is the first feature film to use this rotoscoping technique, and the result is mind blowing. The scene of this movie is a dreamscape, which is perfect for this psychedelic rotoscoping. While the different philosophers and other characters are talking, there are occasional triply animated effects that happen that match their words or ideas. Also their distorting facial features and bodies look really weird and cool. I absolutely love it and worship the grounds these animators walk on after spending three years alone rotoscoping this film.
Everything else about this movie is pretty debatable. The ideas and topics brought up are of a wide variety and some are really interesting, while others are of no interest to me whatsoever. Scenes about existentialism and film theory are all really cool, but then there are topics about social change and how the government is an evil tyranny that we need to rise against comes off as sophomoric and reminds me of discussion I had in high school.
Waking Life is an odd film that is not for people who are expecting mindless entertainment. It’s a lot of talking and sitting and thinking, not a lot of action. The whole movie was made for us to tap into a deeper part of our brains and accept different ideas from many different people who are very passionate for what they believe in. Their passion helps drive this movie. The rotoscoping is beautiful and the discussions are thought provoking, but it’s certainly not an easy ride.