Richard Linklater’s filmography splits, mostly neatly, into two distinct categories: fun, if wistful, comedies like School of Rock or Dazed and Confused; and meandering, philosophical texts including the Beyond… trilogy and last year’s Oscar-winner Boyhood. Waking Life belongs unmistakably to the latter camp, and can boast being both Linklater’s least accessible film and his most academically ambitious.
A hazy exploration of dreams, existence, and an undergrad philosophy syllabus, Waking Life follows an unnamed young man (Wiley Wiggins) through a series of brief, surreal dreams. Many are simply conversations on topics ranging from evolution to free will, giving the whole film the air of a woozy documentary; others are less coherent, seemingly random fragments of life – waking or otherwise.
What the film might lack in narrative force, it makes up for in sheer style. Waking Life was Linklater’s first foray into rotoscope animation, later used again in A Scanner Darkly. In rotoscopy, animation is laid directly over filmed footage, allowing for utterly realistic movement and facial expressions for utterly unrealistic characters.
Linklater sent each scene out to different animators, allowing for extensive variation in styles throughout. Some strive for detail approaching realism, others reduce characters to block colours. One memorable sequence sees a speaker’s face distort and shift as he talks, the camera never breaking away; others see smaller animated characters and events hopping across the scene.
It’s an effect that goes a long way to capturing the ephemeral, ungraspable logic of dream worlds – this certainly couldn’t be further away from the rigid predictability of Inception. Attempts to make sense of it all are fruitless – you’re better off shrugging and going along for the ride. The closest Waking Life has to a recurrent thread is a series of discussions around lucid dreaming – when you realise that you’re dreaming while it’s happening – though even this comes mostly from fragments of meandering dialogue left dangling.
Much like a dream itself, Waking Life isn’t interested in offering coherent logic or a concrete narrative. Ever-shifting, its ideas moving out of reach just as you think you have a handle on them, its an engrossing audiovisual experience, but perhaps not the best way to brush up on contemporary metaphysical theory.
This Arrow re-release features the usual commentary tracks and deleted scenes, along with highlights including rotoscoped short films by art director Bob Sabiston, a selection of pre-animation live action footage, and a short tutorial on rotoscopy.
Words by Dominic Preston