Waking Life
directed by Richard Linklater
(20th Century Fox, 2001)

It's the kind of movie that goes over best when it's late at night and nothing else is on TV, or you've had a couple of beers with friends and are feeling all philosophical. It's that kind of vibe that permeates Waking Life, an animated film from writer/director Richard Linklater that wonders: When we're awake, are we really awake? Or are all our experiences really all a part of a dream? Either way, how do we know for sure?

If you like your animation a la Disney, with star-studded voices and some catchy merchandise timed to sell with the release, be forewarned: Waking Life is something else entirely. It's a series of vignettes, conversations between a young man and people he meets, that are lectures on language, free will, existentialism, the telescoping nature of evolution, neurobiology and, in one scene, self-immolation.

Do the conversations really take place? When he thinks he's awakening, is it really just into another dream state? Are dream worlds and waking worlds just parallel in time? Oh, it's the stuff of Philosophy 101, for sure. And yet, maybe it's the animation itself, maybe it's the fact that each segment's only a couple of minutes long, but Linklater keeps Waking Life moving enough that the more pretentious scenes are over quickly.

Here's the jist: A young man, Wiley Wiggins, needs a ride. He's picked up by a guy in a boat-shaped car, who already has one passenger, and is asked where he wants to be dropped off. "Anywhere," Wiley says. But the other passenger gives the driver very specific directions to where Wiley should be delivered, and he soon finds himself on the pavement, wandering.

He meets up with a professor, a young woman he doesn't recognize from the film's start and is accosted by television images. We also float above the conversations of two men in a bar and a couple in bed (who, it turns out, look like and are voiced by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, who play young lovers in Linklater's 1995 film Before Sunrise.)

There's no plot, per se (kind of like some of Linklater's other work, it's an excuse to get characters talking), other than ruminations on reincarnation and people wondering how, if human cells completely renew themselves every seven years, we can remain the same, essential people even though we're entirely new.

It's the kind of conversation that sucks some people in and makes others antsy with impatience.

The animation, with constantly trembling and shifting images, took a while to get used to. And it was odd to hear real-life, uncartoony sounds matched to the pictures. It's the most talky cartoon I've ever seen; it's the most talky movie I've seen all year.

And there really is very little out there that's anything like Waking Life.

[ by Jen Kopf ]
Rambles: 11 October 2002

Buy it from Amazon.com.