Waking Life (2001) Film Review

Wiley Wiggins drifts through an increasingly surreal waking dream. He encounters numerous characters that spout a variety of differing political and philosophical perspectives on life.


Waking Life (2001) takes place within the roto-scoped visuals of the protagonist’s lucid dream. Amongst the increasingly surreal imagery, Wiley tries to find some sort of meaning from the people that he meets. From existentialism to a brief appearance by director Richard Linklater, Waking Life is a film that questions the nature of reality but poses no real answers – only musings.

The film uses the roto-scoping technique that Linklater would later use to great effect in a Scanner Darkly. The film was shot with real actors, edited using traditional methods, and then animated. Roto-scoping is a lengthy process and each scene had to be coloured frame by frame. Linklater used a number of different animators, one for each scene, and the visuals vary hugely from setting to setting. This fractures an already simplistic narrative and turns the film into a number of disparate vignettes.

The narrative follows Wiley Wiggins, in a manner reminiscent of Slackers, as he navigates the uncertain world of lucid dreaming. The wavy roto-scoped lines further the unreal setting and the often-strange conversations are moments of didacticism. Wiley for the most part remains silent and he passively observers and assimilates information. He is not active in the process and in this technologically designed and coloured world he is initially voiceless.

Waking Life is unreal

The opening scene sees Wiley drift into the sky and immediately the world of the film and its reliance on the unreal is revealed. Wiggins is adrift and there is very little to ground him. Waking Life is an effective commentary on the mass media age and it considers the effect of too much information and how it impinges on traditional notions of reality. It’s an interesting stylistic tool and Linklater uses the medium of film to explore its form and wider legacy.

Waking Life is a crazy and scattered film and within its cell shaded context everything seems to be alive. Buildings and cars pulsate, perspectives shift, and the link between moment to moment is tenuous at best. The world that Linklater has created feels so close to reality but like a mirage the image teases and then shifts. The effect it has on the viewer is both playful and subversive. The imagery increases in its intensity and becomes markedly darker in tone as it nears its conclusion.

Passive listener, didactic lessons

Wiley is a lanky, droopy, ineffective protagonist and this seems to be a narrative choice. His clothes and general appearance are bland and his slacker ethos fits the hallucinatory dream-state that he is in. His appearance and general attitude serves as a metaphor for passivity and it works as a narrative foil. Wiley remains quiet as numerous characters provide didactic lessons on the nature of reality (from their own philosophical/political/religious perspective). The myriad of information has another effect on the film and it becomes harder and harder to define anything close to truth.

The requirement it seems to fully assimilate and enjoy Waking Life is to adopt Wiley’s approach: to sit and let it all wash over you. The perspectives that abound are complex but all told within the context of carefully rendered visuals. The ‘cartoon’ effect lends the film a degree of palatability and perhaps makes the often-pedagogic tone more readable.

Complex conversations, pop culture imagery

The tone of the conversation varies in complexity and Waking Life is full of pop culture images. These images are often political, but at every point the roto-scoped visuals make it more easily digestible and more relatable to the degree of removal we have when we see those images on TV. There’s the self immolating man who be cries his lack of autonomy, “Let my own lack of a voice be heard.” This is expressed with few words and a huge reliance instead on visual rhetoric.

There’s also the philosopher who disagrees with the post-modern condition arguing that its notions of identity constructed from socio-ideological determinants has failed and postulates that existentialism is the answer. At another point the idea of two Neo-Darwinian evolutionary systems is explored; one being digital and derived from information technology and the second, analogue from biology and cloning. Waking Life spends time in each moment and analyses in great detail whatever theory is discussed.

A scene that is a personal favourite involves an appearance from Richard Linklater. He discusses Philip K. Dick and the nature of time. It’s an interesting conversation and like so much of Waking Life, it is self-reflexive and inherently post-modern. However, the conversation that says the most about Waking Life is a discourse on Andre Bazin’s theory of the cinematic “holy moment” – a point in time where the camera’s gaze captures unadulterated reality (perhaps even God himself).

This all may sound pretentious but there’s something convincing about Waking Life. The narrative is set within a lucid dream and this lends huge scope to its direction. However the film never materialises into a cohesive whole and this may be a problem for some. For others they’ll find Waking Life to be a delightful piece of escapism that carries some weight. The film questions its identity and it forces audiences to question their relationship with the filmic form.

Waking Life is a movie that resists definition and forces us to consider philosophical notions that perhaps we would never have considered before. Reality is also something that has a potentially transient and definitely uneasy definition and Waking Life shows us that there’s more than one answer to the question of what it means to be alive.

Hyper-real setting

This dreamy film will inspire viewers to look inwards and consider the implicit suggestion that lucid dreaming is just as real, if not better, than reality. Waking Life is not evangelical but it will have a similar effect – lucid dreaming seems to be the idealised existence. You can go wherever you want, do whatever you want, and it’s a world that you control (and create) centred on you.

Waking Life is a visually appealing movie and its narrative is at times challenging, often intriguing, and always stimulating. Its reliance on visual effects may date it eventually but now, over ten years on, it’s still as relevant and just as artistically rendered as it was on its initial release.

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