Film Review: Waking Life

An aesthetic, philosophic journey meant to be had outside of the cinema medium.

(Image from

As much a cinematic voyage as a philosophic one, Richard Linklater’s 2001 flick Waking Life ushers the viewer into a 99-minute dissertation defense that both enraptures and alienates.  Aesthetically dominate with impressionist rotoscopic animations, the film consistently foregrounds its “unreality” in favor of a trip through the uncanny valley at least and total spatial disassociation at most. While it overly favors the inquiry of vast questions over divining answers, the film does force the spectator into the mental spaces and quandaries of the filmmakers and thus is successful in its artistic endeavors.

The film explores concepts of reality with a man (Wiley Wiggins) standing in for the everyman.  Loosely structured around the idea that the main character is lucid dreaming and unable to wake up, the narrative consists of vignettes – people talking more or less scripted conversations about philosophy, art, etc.  Some sequences are more pointed than others, minor departures into strange settings and bizarre caricatures, but most depict seemingly real people discussing reality in armchair interviews.  A notable case includes an early scene where the main character is picked up from the airport in a boat-car and chauffeured into the dream world where he (and by extension we) must “go with the flow” in this “constant departure.”

Waking Life is a challenging film to experience because, unlike traditional cinema which ushers the viewer into a lulled escape from the actual, Linklater’s film never allows one access to the world within the screen.  There is an immediately recognizable absurdity to the film’s exposure of hyper-intelligent, hyper-well-read individuals sitting, discussing philosophy, which reminds viewers this is a directed experience.  The animations make the environments swim unnaturally, foregrounding the medium and the experience thereof, and occasionally makes a character visually indecipherable – a Picasso person conversion across the coffee table.  It falls into the “hyperreality” of Umberto Eco, presenting a amalgam of reality, which we know is false, and beckoning us to accept the substitution as genuine.

What strikes most when the film is put in its production context is that the film demonstrates a pinnacle of the Generation X rebellion and disillusionment.  Casting young people almost exclusively as ones with the right mentality, Waking Life seems to collate the many existential doubts of the generation and place them all in one text for examination by future scholars.  Each individual met posits some grand theory of the meaninglessness of life or man’s fundamental misunderstanding of it, which is presented neither positively nor negatively, but for the audience to discuss and divine.

Amidst the numerous ideologies and teleologies posited, the question ultimately posed by the generation of this film, by the filmmaker himself, to audiences across time is one that dates back to the Bible: How then shall we live?  Choosing to merely exposit the questions, Linklater clearly wants any answering to be engaged outside of the film amongst our own peers and community – a noble and dangerous goal that he accomplishes well.  Artistically a treasure and a realism scholar’s wet dream, Waking Life is a must for your next existentialist dinner party.

Author: Tyler D. Welch

Filmmaker, Storyteller, Scholar

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