A 99-minute fully animated dream sequence containing numerous dream subplots, false awakenings, philosophical brainteasers and, yet, no clear story line – sounds like the perfect recipe for a Hollywood bomb. All the more surprising, then, that writer/director Richard Linklater pulls off “Waking Life” like, well, a dream.
Linklater, known as somewhat of a film pioneer since directing the cult hit “Dazed and Confused” and “Before Sunrise,” has created his most startlingly original work to date. The film’s protagonist/tour guide, played by Wiley Wiggins of “Dazed and Confused” fame, walks – and sometimes floats – the audience through an intense philosophical journey probing into some of mankind’s oldest and deepest questions: Am I free? What is the meaning of the word love? Am I sleepwalking through my waking state or wake-walking through my dreams?
Just when the film feels as if it will collapse under its own cerebral weight, Linklater inserts abstract purpose, a laid-back pace and cleverly timed, albeit surreal, humor – you can’t miss the car-boat that Wiggins’ character uses as a taxi service. “Waking Life” is far more than an incomprehensible existentialism class that you mistakenly signed up for; it is smart social commentary disguised as an expressionist painting come to life.
Linklater shot the film – essentially short dialogues in which characters expound on their theories of life – as live action. The film was fully shot and edited before art director Bob Sabiston used his signature software program and assembled a team of more than 30 artists to animate “Waking Life” – a feat that took more than nine months to complete. It was estimated that each minute of footage required 250 hours of animation. What on first thought might seem like a tediously redundant process, on screen becomes magic. And not in the Disney sense.
Each artist was assigned a character to illustrate in a way befitting the vignette. The result is extreme variation in the level of abstraction from one scene to another. While some forms are rendered in a naturalistic fashion, others are reduced to simple cutout shapes of flat-color, rivaling a Matisse work. The world created with this process is fluid and breathes with unparalleled energy and vibrancy. Characters float and transform like chameleons in front of the audience, while remaining securely anchored within a constantly moving background. At times, it is enough to make you motion sick.
In fact, there is very little in “Waking Life” that is concrete. Not only is there no apparent plot, there is no apparent time or place – the filmmakers intentionally avoided shooting landmarks and filmed in three different locations. Linklater’s casting was also unique. Having drawn on actors that he previously worked with – including Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy from “Before Sunrise” – Linklater also cast himself, a couple of his former philosophy professors, “Traffic” director Steven Soderbergh and a bunch of non-actors he felt were smart and had something on their mind.
With a character-driven cast, abstract dialogue and mind-trippy visuals, “Waking Life” is a magic carpet ride that will leave you wondering whether the mushrooms you ate for dinner were a little funky. But don’t reduce this film to a stoner flick, “Waking Life” provides enough cerebral chewing gum to keep you masticating for days. And if it all just gets a little too much, take some advice from philosopher Timothy “Speed” Levitch and “salsa dance with [your] confusion.”