From a visual standpoint, "Waking Life" is a marvelously quixotic and intoxicating triumph. Director Richard Linklater (1998's "The Newton Boys") filmed the entire movie using human actors, and then transported each frame to computer and had it colored in and animated. The result is surely like nothing you've ever seen before, and the overwhelming beauty that comes from the images is astonishing.
Where Linklater runs into trouble is in his frivolous screenplay, which forces a non-stop barrage of pseudo-deep theories and questions on the viewer that, more often than not, resemble a bunch of psycho-babble hooey. Without any specific direction to go in, the film grows tedious almost immediately--a shame, since the overall premise is startlingly innovative.
A study on existentialism, an unnamed young man (Wiley Wiggins) moves from person to person, place to place, and situation to situation in a constant dream state from which he cannot wake up from. In fact, if not for his bedside alarm clock that flashes indistinguishable numbers, the false reality of everything around him would lead him to believe that he isn't asleep at all.
The novel idea of an entire motion picture following a person while they are constantly in a dream is more than intriguing, but when one thinks of dreams, they think of truly off-the-wall occurrences that don't really make sense, but are too fascinating to walk away from. In this respect, "Waking Life" is an inaccurate portrayal of a dream because, aside from a sporadic handful of strange happenings (a man fills up a gas tank, only to pour it over himself and light the match), the majority of time is spent listening to boring people drone on about complex subjects so purposefully meaningful that no one would ever dream them, or want to. For a more involving and purely strange dreamlike film, David Lynch's "Mulholland Drive
" is easily superior.
The protagonist played by Wiley Wiggins (1993's "Dazed and Confused") isn't a fleshed-out character, despite appearing in almost every scene, because he spends most of his time sitting around listening to what others have to say. There is never a real given sense of who he is, even while spending 100 minutes within his dream. Every other character is in only one or two scenes each with few that make an impression.
The exception, and the best five minutes of the picture, are the return of the Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke characters from their exquisite 1995 Linklater film, "Before Sunrise." Sitting in bed and talking, they bring up one of the few interesting and truthful notions the movie has to offer, which is that dreams are infinitely longer than reality. "I wake up and my clock will say 10, and I'll close my eyes and have the most vivid, intricate dream," says Delpy. "Then when I wake up again, my clock will say 10:13."
What is impressive about "Waking Life" are its technical attributes, particularly the gorgeously dreamy animation that takes on an added authenticity because it was actually filmed beforehand. Subtle moments of human nature sneak in that are lovely to behold, and the sequences where the camera quietly tracks through the desolate city and suburban landscapes are more effective than any line of dialogue present.
In a scene late in the film, a man (Richard Linklater) tells Wiggins that he is going to tell him about a dream he had. "Usually when someone says that, you know you're in for a dull next couple of minutes," he says. While this statement may be telling, usually dreams are oddball enough that they are able to keep one's attention when being relayed. "Waking Life," however, is one very long dream, and it doesn't only include a couple of dull minutes, but 100 of them.
©2001 by Dustin Putman