My reasons why your life needs the movie “Waking LIfe”…
When the movie Waking Life was released in 2001, it was met with mixed reviews. The subject matters of existentialism and transcendentalism were seen by some as pretentious drivel, “a vapid attempt at intellectualism” according to an online critic. There is no plot within the film, no character arc, and there’s no story to follow. The protagonist is never given a proper noun, a name by which he can be identified, and it leaves one to wonder: is this piece, in fact, an ego-driven exercise meant only to charismatically fluff other egos?
Written and directed by Richard Linklater, director of such movies as Bad News Bears, School of Rock, and Dazed and Confused, the movie Waking Life can be described as an indie experimental adult animation piece. Linklater also worked as cinematographer, shooting the film in live-action before using “rotoscoping”, the action of drawing the film frame by frame in cartoon form over the live-action piece. Allowing the film to convey a realistic fantasy, rotoscoping is only one of the ground-breaking aspects applied to the piece to offer an experience as savory to the intangible senses as buttered popcorn. The soundtrack features the Tosca Tango Orchestra and featured the “nuevo-tango” style influenced by the music of the Argentine "father of new tango” Astor Piazzolla.
As the movie opens, we find the protagonist as he’s arriving somewhere, but no relevant names are ever exposed. The main character catches a cab of sorts, a car decorated as a boat, and immediately the driver/captain expels information concerning metaphysics and the meaning of life. As the protagonist exits the vehicle without much interaction, he is struck by an oncoming car.
And he awakes in bed. As we follow the main character, he encounters various people who express to him the importance of one aspect of a much deeper philosophy concerning the nature and potential of humanity. In one scene, we, presumably as the protagonist, float in through the wall to find a couple in bed as they converse about thoughts keeping them restless. They talk about dreaming, about how one can fall asleep at 10:15, have an intricate and vivd dream that feels as if it lasts all night, only to awaken and see the clock displays 10:18. They follow this thought by saying our brains are active for six to twelve minutes after the body is dead. They postulate one could go through an entire lifetime several times in the brain’s last minutes, and that maybe that’s what life is: we’re reliving every second of our lives as memories once we’re dead, explaining the sense of deja vu.
Then we find ourselves elsewhere as somebody explains another aspect of existentialism before posing a deeper question for thought. As we come near the end of the movie, it becomes clear what is happening to the main character before we realize things aren’t so clear, not in the movie, and not in reality. The protagonist, after a series of false awakenings and questionable events recur, decides he must be sleeping. What happens next will leave the viewer with a perspective questioning all things.
The film is philosophical, but it engages the viewer as the character moves ahead. We’re confronted with questions we can’t help but apply to ourselves, questions such as, “What is your consistent perspective?” The main character answers, “It’s like I’m being prepared for something.” The biggest questions raised by the movie are never answered, only danced with as the viewer is left to decide how much of the philosophy may be applicable to his or her own life.
Waking Life has been seen as another fluff-piece of pseudo-intellectualism, and many critics online are eager to express these opinions. However, the film received an 82% on Metacritic and an 81% on Rotten Tomatoes with an average review of 7.44 out of 10. Critic Frank Lovece called the film “beautifully drawn”, but felt the content was “pedantic navel-gazing”. Roger Ebert, however, gave the movie four stars, saying after it was released in October, only days after the 9/11 tragedy in the United States, “Waking Life was a jolt, or nudge, a reminder that we could usefully ask big questions and propose possible answers. It affirmed our need to think for ourselves and not give in to dead-end despair.”
In fact, while existentialism generally tends be yoked by a sense of desperation, Waking Life allows the viewer to interpret for him or herself whether to take existentialism as a negative part of life or to view it with its more positive cousin, transcendentalism. The movie is a metaphor unto itself and the real world, and one would find it difficult to walk away unshaken by this movie. As a twenty year old who watched this piece when it was released, it becomes more relevant as I grow older. The subject matter in this film presses down on us the more experienced we become, and we’re left questioning what’s real and what’s magic. For me, no movie has ever been as influential as this experiment in philosophy, to shape and define who I’ve become in this transition of finding who I am in my own waking life.