“Dream is destiny,” says a little girl playing with a paper fortune teller with a little boy in the opening scene to Waking Life. In the next scene, the little boy steps outside at night and observes a comet. His feet lift off the ground and he tries to hold onto the handle of a car to keep from floating away. But this was just a dream Wiley Wiggins was having after he dozed off on a train.
The film begins, or rather drifts, dream-like between disassociated characters as Wiggins gets off the train, makes a phone call to a friend, and then catches a ride with a man driving a boat around like a car. The man driving this car expounds unasked about his view of the world and how the boat-car is “see-worthy.” Wiggins is dropped off at an unknown destination suggested by another passenger, and the driver says he doesn’t know where it is but it’s going to determine the rest of Wiggins life. Wiggins gets out of the boat-car and starts walking, stopping to read a piece of paper that’s lying in the middle of the road. It says look to your right. He does, and sees a car speeding towards him. Then he wakes up in bed and starts his day.
Waking Life’s great accomplishment is that it plays like a dream, accomplished by its fantastic use of rotoscopy, which gives every scene a hallucinatory feel, where its quality has both the fluidity of film but has a hand drawn, specific quality to it. And each scene has its own interesting, specific style to it that reflects the topics under discussion. And the topic under discussion throughout the film is mostly of the philosophical bent: existentialism, consciousness, reality, and dreams.
Wiggins is our guide through this interesting, not-quite-real world: tables bob up and down like they’re in invisible water, character’s eyes and features slide off fixed points, and thoughts materialize around the speaker that literally illustrate what they’re talking about.
About the story and Wiggins’s experiences: after he’s hit by the car in the beginning, Wiggins is shown wandering from person to person, each of whom give monologues of one sort or another about their ideas and thoughts on thinking, being, and existing. But sometimes the film becomes untethered, seemingly leaving Wiggins behind and wandering through this waking dream we’re watching to other disconnected characters and experiences. Indeed, eventually it’s suggested that Wiggins has died and this is his dying dream.
This is hinted at early on, as Wiggins is unable to tell time, or at least all of the clocks show nonsense; when he tries to go to sleep again, instead he floats up from his bed and begins his journey across town, dropping in on various unknown, unnamed characters. But then he’s back to corporeal form elsewhere, listening to these people expouse their philosophies. One man talks about chaos and anger and violence, fills up a gas tank, douses himself, and then sets himself on fire–with a match Wiggins hands him.
Elsewhere, the camera/Wiggins flies into a bedroom where a man and a woman lay in bed together, and these are recognizable: it’s the couple from director Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, who are having a conversation about the last minutes of consciousness while dying and how the perception of time stretches out during that time before drifting into a conversation about reincarnation. And then we’re in a jail cell, where a literally red-skinned man rants and raves about revenge he’s going to wreak on everyone that’s wronged him once he gets out. And then we’re off to another thing.
In a way, Waking Life is like Linklater’s version of Finnegans Wake to his personal Ulysses, 1991’s Slacker. Like Ulysses, Slacker was a film about the day–about the tangible reality that a wandering eye travelling through the quirky town of Austin, Texas as it drifts from character to character. And like Finnegans Wake, Joyce’s sideways sequel of sorts to Ulysses that was a novel about the night, so too is Waking Life the dream state version of Slacker.
Linklater had already achieved a lot before making Waking Life–having helmed not just the highly influential indie film Slacker but also Before Sunrise and the classic Dazed and Confused. But with Waking Life, Linklater made a true work of art: a film unlike any other before it that made a film comprised of different philosophical monologues interesting. This is because of his use of rotoscopy, which literally animates what would otherwise be a series of talking heads yapping on with varying degrees of informed or unfocused ideas about what man is, who we are, and what the meaning of all of this could be.
And the use of rotoscopy, in turn, makes the film a literal work of art: the photorealistic renderings of the characters are constantly in motion even when sitting still thanks to the constantly shifting separated elements in the frames that give the film a bobbing, constant motion. Characters come in and out of focus depending on what they’re saying, and the pace of the film reflects the jostling, thin logic that dreams often operate on and progress by.
Maybe the closest film to actually replicate what dreaming is like, particularly in its visuals, Waking Life is an astonishing and singular film. It’s also not a particularly popular film: although critically acclaimed, its nature and subject matter does not hold a wide appeal. After all, how many people (besides stoned college kids) really want to watch a two hour-long film that’s mostly comprised of philosophical monologues, no matter how animated they may be?
But even 16 years after its release, it remains a one-of-a-kind film. Rotoscopy in general hasn’t gotten its due in film yet, which is surprising considering the stunning visuals this process can produce. Linklater made one more film using rotoscopy, the similarly visually impressive A Scanner Darkly, before putting this method aside.
However unpopular the process of rotoscopy remains in film, it was employed to perfection in Waking Life, producing a waking dream for audiences to watch and ponder and off of which they could spark their own ideas. Maybe like all great cult films, Waking Life is best categorized here because that’s where it will be curated, protected, and appreciated best–by a limited audience that enjoys it for what it accomplishes instead of what it is not.