Watching "Waking Life" is like eavesdropping on a theoretical discourse between Kierkegaard and Kerouac, while standing in a modern art museum as the paintings come to life and melt into your visual cortex.
An eye-popping, mind-blowing, groundbreaking piece of stream-of-consciousness pop-art philosophy, director Richard Linklater has created a film that turns the notions of dreaming and reality inside out, both visually and conceptually, while telling an absorbing tale of a off-beat teenage boy (Wiley Wiggins) trying to wrap his head around a ponderous waking dream from which he can't seem to escape.
Linklater ("Slacker," "SubUrbia") shot the film on digital video with dozens of actors (some of note, some unknown) playing nameless denizens of the real world and of the kid's subconscious. They're characters from whom he soaks up random abstract ideas on everything from transcendence and reincarnation to collective memory to the existence of free will.
Then in post-production, every frame of "Waking Life" was painted over with wildly vivid, even more abstract, yet startlingly life-like animation that lends the final product a surreal artistic and cerebral vitality that is unique in the history of cinema.
The kid meanders through incongruous encounters with oddball amateur philosophers of every stripe (a man driving a boat-shaped car, a beautiful redhead, an armed and angry drunk, a convenience store clerk). He engages some of them in profound conversation. Others he simply observes -- or even imagines -- as they rant through frenetic dialogues about hatred or spiritual subsistence within modern society.
Eventually -- but not before you begin to wonder if all this is going somewhere -- an underlying theme takes shape. The kid is trying to gather knowledge on lucid dreaming techniques so he can wake himself up -- although he's often not sure if and when he's really dreaming.
The animation of "Waking Life" is not a gimmick or an experiment, but a visual extension of the movie's fluid metaphysical state. Resembling reality but not being bound by it -- or even by the limits of special effects -- allows any given moment to be as non-literal as Linklater desires. A character's hairy arms can become almost like living tattoos. Musicians' fingers can grow supernaturally elastic. Hallways can wiggle and jiggle like Jell-O, and roads can rise and fall like the sea. But because the computer-aided watercolor milieu is applied over live-action footage, it all still has the pulse and veracity of the real world -- albeit with extraordinary potential for layers of additional symbolism wherever and whenever the director chooses.
More than 30 animators worked on the film, and every scene (sometimes different shots within the same scene) has an entirely different look. One style shows a cubist influence, another is like an oil paint sketch, and another is like an off-the-wall underground comic book. Yet they're all beautiful and fit together seamlessly -- all part of the mind's eye of the kid on his quest for literal self-awareness.
The intellectual abstractions in "Waking Life" come at you so fast that it may require two, three or 10 viewings to absorb it all. Some of it is philosophical masturbation -- which Linklater freely and creatively acknowledges, just about the time you start to think so, with a surprising comical aside in which a monkey gives a pretentious lecture to a college art class.
But the questions about identity, reality, perception, life, death and consciousness that fuel the film are engrossing ones, made all the more fascinating by the endless versatility of its aesthetic and metaphorical palette.
Run time: 99 mins
In Theaters: Thursday 7th March 2002
Box Office USA: $2.1M
Box Office Worldwide: $3.2M
Distributed by: Fox Searchlight
Production compaines: Line Research, Fox Searchlight Pictures, Independent Film Channel (IFC), Thousand Words, Flat Black Films, Detour Filmproduction
Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 80%
Fresh: 113 Rotten: 28
IMDB: 7.8 / 10
Director: Richard Linklater
Starring: Wiley Wiggins as Main Character, Ethan Hawke as Jesse, Julie Delpy as Celine, Ken Webster as Bartender, Adam Goldberg as One of Four Men, Steven Soderbergh as Interviewed on television, Bill Wise as Boat Car Guy, Charles Gunning as Angry Man in Jail, Caveh Zahedi as Caveh Zahedi
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