Lets get this out of the way at the outset - you won't see a film this year with more special effects than "Waking Life". That's right. Coming to an arthouse theater near you!
While "Waking Life" is too quiet and insular a film to ever really explode on the popular consciousness, it's use of post-production tricks may, in time, give it the enduring cult status of Jan Svankmajer's dreamlike "Alice" and "Don Juan" films. Filmmaker Richard Linkletter initially shot the movie on live-action digital film and then used a process called "rotoscoping" animation that animates cartoon-like versions of the original footage. While that sounds cool enough in itself, know this: Linkletter pulls something off here that, when you think about it, may be much more difficult than it sounds. He didn't just have one production house work on the rotoscoping of the film, he had a different artist (about 30 in all) draw each character in the film separately, in the process creating a constant morphing of styles and directions that always manages to stay within the parameters of his overall vision of the film. Pretty damn impressive. Each scene is distinct enough from the last that there is a palpable change in the mood and overall aesthetic vision from shot to shot, yet the change is never so radical that the flow is interrupted. One scene of a man in prison is darkly colored with the characters' skin colored red, while another man's head, rambling on about the machinery of society, turns into interlocking gears. In still another scene, two men trying to have a "moment" turn into clouds while the scene behind them melts away into a skyscape.
It's great stuff, but the uncomfortable truth is that if it weren't for the animation, the film would basically look like an updated version of Linkletter's 1991 "Slacker". Both films begin with a young man getting off a bus. In "Slacker", the young man was Linkletter, who gets in a cab and starts telling the unimpressed driver about his experiences with lucid dreaming, while "Waking Life" is itself a lucid dream about lucid dreaming. Linkletter shows up in the first car scene here too, but this time as another passenger of a "boatcar" driven by a rambling driver. Fine. If Linkletter thinks it's a good device, I'll give him that one, but there is only so far I'll allow him to remake the same film before I have to say something. It's like he just pulled from the same bag of tricks, going so far so to bring back some characters from "Slacker", including one scene that he stole wholesale (can you steal from yourself? Maybe Linkletter should look into that in his next film) where a guy drives around the city in his car equipped with a P.A. through which he yells at anyone who'll listen that society is fucked.
Though the absence of any traditional linear structure is the central point of the film, after about half an hour the concept begins to wear on you. Wiley Wiggins, who plays the main character in the film, must have had a pretty easy job working on this film, as in the majority of the scenes all he has to do is sit and listen to diatribes about the social evolution of mankind and the existential ramblings of half baked thinkers. Some of the preaching is funny, but mostly it's the kind of intellectual mumblings you'll hear in a college town coffee shop. It's not that what they talk about is trite, far from it, it's just that many times the writing is a bit embarrassing in its earnestness. Some of the dialogue sounds like coked-up Critical Theory, and while that's what made "Slacker" so funny, it gets a bit grating in "Waking Life". The animation saves the film time and time again, as you can drift away from the dialogue and watch the pretty colors spin in the background.
To be blunt, the film would have been a brilliant short, and I would have definitely wanted more, but an hour and a half of grad school ranting and a Guy Debord love-in wore on me. Enough cannot be made of the animation, however, and it's well worth it for that alone. I give it three well-thumbed copies of Being and Nothingness out of five, with a brand-new Foucault for Dummies thrown in for good measure.