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With: Wiley Wiggins, Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, "Speed" Levitch, Caveh Zahedi
Written by: Richard Linklater
Directed by: Richard Linklater
MPAA Rating: R for language and some violent images
Running Time: 100
Date: 01/22/2001

Waking Life (2001)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Welcome to Dreamland

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

"Dream is destiny," a little girl tells the young Wiley Wiggins at the start of the new Waking Life, a brilliant new animated film from Richard Linklater (Slacker). And in the spirit of those words, the film takes on dreams and dream logic with the most full-fledged embrace since Luis Bunuel released The Phantom of Liberty nearly three decades ago.

The difference is that Waking Life concerns itself with lucid dreams, not emotional dreams. Linklater is interested in talk, people sorting out the various mysteries of the universe through intelligent discussion. In this manner, Waking Life adopts the form of Slacker, in which each character appears on screen for a few minutes, delivers their diatribe, and leaves the film forever.

Only now we have a connecting factor in Wiley Wiggins, the young actor from Linklater's Dazed and Confused (1993), who doesn't have a name in this film but may as well be called by his real name. Wiley wanders around in this dream state meeting these folks and listening carefully to their ideas. He encounters conflicting ideas from time to time; one character insists that our destinies are predetermined, and another exclaims that we're each writing our own books. (One monologue is delivered by a monkey.)

Linklater shot Waking Life on digital video with real actors, including Wiggins, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy (the stars of Linklater's Before Sunrise) and "Speed" Levitch (from the 1998 documentary The Cruise). He then hired more than 30 animators to turn the images into cartoons using the latest in computer technology. So not only does each scene betray a distinctive artistic style, but such new-fangled computer effects such as individually moving "plates" are now possible. (Several different sections of background, such as tables in a café, move around independent of one another.) If Waking Life were nothing else, it would at least be a breakthrough in the art of animation.

But even without the animation, Waking Life still exists as a living, breathing entity, full of real thought, conversation and ideas. We hear so little of this in our everyday movies that when it finally comes it feels fresh and bracing.

However, I would argue that the animation is necessary to keep up the "dream" theme. Linklater's imagery is too ordinary on its own to qualify as dream time. Bunuel was the only director who could effectively pull that off (and Linklater admitted as much to me during our conversation last week). So the animation comes as a masterstroke meant to deliver us into a non-real world where dream logic is indeed possible.

In addition, Linklater has learned that conversation alone will not drive a film. He adds in just a few little privileged moments that drive Waking Life over the top and into greatness. In an early scene, Wiley sees a girl at a bus station and they share an emotional connection, just by looking at one another and not even speaking. Later, Wiley begins to float off into space and instinctively grabs hold of a car door handle. It becomes his most important decision: whether or not to stay with Earth-bound ideas or simply let go.

Waking Life allows us to do both -- to latch on to rational thought or to simply let go and float. It's a truly great achievement.

Fox's DVD release contains two commentary tracks, one from Linklater, Wiggins and others, the other shared by the animators. Other extras include a making-of documentary, a trailer and footage from the pre-animated digital video version.

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