Review by John Hamann
November 5, 2001
"Dream is Destiny" is one of the first phrases uttered in Richard Linklater's new animated flick for adults, Waking Life.
Waking Life is Linklater's examination of dreams and all things existential. Debate over whether or not this film is good, bad or middling will take place in coffee-shop conversations for years to come. The concepts are not easy to ingest, but the artwork is so beautiful and haunting that one cannot come away without the feeling that something serious, big, and challenging just took place in his/her mind.
Wiley Wiggins, the center of the film, was last seen in Linklater's Dazed and Confused, and he gives a similar performance here as in the aforementioned film, wandering through this animated landscape, which is his dream world, or death world - but now I'm getting ahead of myself.
The film opens with a small boy and a small girl, infinitely beautiful with their colorful faces and Picasso eyes. They are playing the game I played in grade school, where you fold up a piece a paper, and it has random numbers, colors and people's names on it. When I was a child it was used to find out who your future girlfriend or boyfriend was going to be, or deliver a spooky premonition. My first feeling on seeing this was that of being in the throwback machine, that the colors and images used took me back to a simpler time in my life. The girl controls the game; the boy (soon to be Wiley) is the receiver of the fortune. The fortune says, "Dream is Destiny."
From there, the filmmaker and actors not only explore the world of dreams, but also death, violent tendencies, television and more through a series of conversations had between Wiley and a host of intellectual types, slackers, semi-aliens, prison inmates, and beautiful, haunting women. Some of the actors are from the Linklater troupe: Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy from Before Sunrise, Wiggins and others from Dazed and Confused (I could have sworn I heard Parker Posey, but can't find any proof she was in the film), and even a few from the similarly-wandering Slackers. The official Web site for the film says they were looking for everyday people, in some cases actors and in some cases not. In fact, some of the crew lend their voices to the production, and the two actors on screen first are Linklater's daughter, Lorelie, and her friend, Jack, who first expose the central theme to the film. More amusement is in spotting the cameo appearances, and there are a few here that are fun and interesting.
To me, and many will disagree, the animation here is the star of the film. It's hallucinogenic. The process is called rotoscoping, and is done by filming live-action actors and adding the animation after the film has been shot. It really adds to the dreamlike quality that this film possesses in spades. If this had just been filmed as people talking, it wouldn't have worked; the animation brings that much to the film and its characters.
But what is Waking Life about? Well, that is somewhat of a tough question to answer. The story does revolve around Wiley, and whether his constant conversations are taking place in the real world, the sleep world, or the world beyond us may be a bit beyond me. In the Ethan Hawke/Julie Delpy sequence, they discuss Timothy Leary's ideas that in the few minutes just before death, we are taken to a dream world as the brain begins to shut down. They discuss that in this dream/death place, time can slow down in a person's mind, just like in the dream world; sometimes the big epic dreams can seem like they go on forever, but in the real world, only a few minutes pass. There are many, many big ideas like this. All are shot beautifully.
The problem with this kind of concept is time. Big ideas painted onto a new, futuristic landscape cannot be digested and fully pondered in the time we are given in the film. I love a challenging film, and am anxious to see this again, but as a one-time cinematic experience, this film can be a little baffling. As a head's-up: Beware of reviewers that have seen this three or four times. They will love it, and not show nearly the hesitancy that I show you today. Know this: If you go to see this film, do not expect three acts with a climax and a nice, tidy ending. This is an art film that will definitely not be enjoyed by all movie-goers. Be prepared to do some work. And be prepared for the conversation afterward, as it will be impossible to avoid.
If there is an Animated Oscar this year, Waking Life should probably not only be nominated, it should be considered for the best animated film of the year. Kudos should go to Fox Searchlight for picking this film up at Sundance; they should also go to the production companies; The Independent Film Channel, who also produced Girlfight and Boys Don't Cry; and a company called Thousand Words, who had a hand in producing Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream. This film is a vision, and it's a great thing that these companies bet on it with financing.
Will Waking Life be a successful endeavor for these companies? Probably. I don't have a concrete idea of what the budget was here, but I could definitely see a gross in the $10-15 million range if the marketing is appropriately targeted, and word-of-mouth stays strong from the young adult/college market. Really, though, Waking Life will be a huge hit on home video and DVD, as many film fans will be purchasing this one for their collections.