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Waking Life is an animated
movie with strong philosophical themes.
It emphasizes the randomness of life, predetermination, creating one's
own life, and breaking out of preset patterns through self-awareness. The rather disjointed narrative feature many
talking heads, setting out their ideas about the meaning of life, even
pontificating, yet this is never boring, if only because each separate scene is
quite short. Other scenes are performances
by actors, but also are heavy on words and concepts. The animation keeps it all
visually interesting, and the words are less than half the film. Writer and director Richard Linklater admits
that he used this film to include a number of scenes he had written for other
films but had been unable to use, so it has a kitchen sink feel to it. It is very thin as a story, held together by
its main character, college student Wiley Wiggins, meeting the various people
who talk to him, but gradually realizing that his experience is not real, and
he is in a process of lucid dreaming, between sleeping and waking states. Yet the lack of plot does not undermine the
film, because both the ideas and the animation are interesting on their own and
the complement each other beautifully.
The obvious danger with heavily
conceptual or philosophical films is that they become self-indulgent and
pretentious messes. I recently watched I
♥ Huckabees, another film inspired by existentialist ideas, but for
me that was a tedious and unsatisfying experience with a pompous director and
self-satisfied cast of actors. By
contrast, Waking Life has a light touch and holds viewers' attention
even if it does not present a coherent philosophical theory. Rather, it seems to revel in a diversity of
opinions and attitudes, and this is mirrored by the variety of styles of
different animators. It is visually
thrilling, and bears repeated watching not so much because of the depth of the
ideas, but because of the incredible artwork.
It is striking, looking over some
Amazon reviews, that a proportion of viewers reacted strongly against Waking
Life, judging it to be pseudo-intellectual and tiresome. I can understand how some people would not
like such a conceptual film, but it is worth pointing out a couple of redeeming
features, in addition to the outstanding animation artwork. First, several of the people who talk in the
film are genuine intellectuals, published authors with the respect of the
academic profession, so it is tempting to reply that the viewers who don't like
the film are themselves anti-intellectual.
Second, Linklater's film is not trying to propound a particular
philosophical theory although he is clearly mostly interested in
existentialism; rather he is exploring some ideas. The film has an underlying
simplicity and openness that makes it far more palatable than other comparable
The DVD is packed with features,
including 2 commentaries (both good), deleted scenes, an explanation of the
animation process that is based on live video, and plenty of other goodies.
Obviously many people will find this movie too intellectual or
self-consciously, but I found it fascinating and highly enjoyable, and if any
film is going to have the ability to bring philosophy to a wider audience, it
is Waking Life (although The Matrix would give it a good run for
web site for Waking Life.
© 2005 Christian
Perring. All rights reserved.
Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities
Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long
Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His
main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and
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