Waking Life was Richard Linklaters most experimental and arguably most mature work up to that point. Linklater and a small crew quickly shot the film on video and then handed it over to a team of animators who painstakingly traced over the live-action (a process known as rotoscoping). The result is one of the most unique artistic animation experiments ever conducted. Making an animated film consisting of philosophical musings may well seem an artistic indulgence and there are times some of the slightly loopy, New Agey ideas make it emerge more as Wanking Life but you cannot argue with the beauty of the result. There is little in common with either the high-art of modern Disney or their classic outlined two-dimensional figures, nor the 3D visuals of Pixar and imitators. Rather Waking Life feels like an impressionistic oil colour having been brought to three-dimensional life. While sometimes the shifting, swaying backgrounds, tends to make one feel like they are standing on the deck of a ship at sea and a little seasick, the result is unlike any animated film made before.
Waking Life is also a renaissance of Richard Linklater themes. In fact, you could draw comparisons between Richard Linklater and another director who charts the ordinary lives of the same generation of people, Kevin Smith, and his Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001), which came out around the same time and was similarly construed as a picaresque through the themes that made up the particular directors cult. Waking Life is a return to the format of Linklaters Slacker with a single man walking through a town encountering people who expound forth. The difference between Slacker and Waking Life is that Slacker was a mock documentation of oddball eccentricities and ramblings, whereas Waking Life is more a documentation of philosophical attitudes. Waking Life is Slacker seemingly informed by Linklaters later Before Sunrise, which was essentially a two-person existential dialogue tripping through the meaning of life and the poetry of grandly meaningful ideas. Before Sunrises two stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy even turn up in bed here having a conversation where she wonders if she is merely not an old woman remembering her life in her dying moments and he entertains the possibility of paradigm shifts communicated through group telepathy.
Watching Waking Life is not unakin to what one might call 3 AM Moments that particular time when a party is winding down and people are starting to sober up and conversation drifts to the deep and meaningful. Linklater certainly covers the gamut of opinion, discoursing with postmodernism, phenomenology, reincarnation, linguistic existentialism, free will and quantum physics, the mind-body question, sitting down to have a Holy Moment. Even down to someone in a jail cell brooding with rage against those who put him there to the individual angry with the world who sets himself on fire. It is clearly Linklaters purpose to chart as many varied viewpoints as possible without ever arguing for or against any of them. Of course, the main difference between Waking Life and the usual 3 AM Moment are the literacy with which people put their point-of-view, as opposed to real-life where it more ends up a case of someone dogmatically arguing an incoherent point-of-view. The results here are sometimes wittily inconsequential the film indulges in odd jokes, most clumsily one about gun advocates but is always provocative, dazzling and frequently brilliant. If you want an idea of just how unique and intelligent Waking Life is try and name one other populist, even arthouse film out there, that not only mentions Sartre and Kierkegaard, but also engages in literate discourses on either.
Waking Life is at its most hauntingly poetic when Richard Linklater weaves it into a labyrinth of dream, of a dreamer becoming aware he is in a dream state and constantly questioning it. There is a beautiful scene where the central character wakes up and then encounters someone who describes themselves as a dream lubricator who shows how you can tell you are dreaming, only for the hero to try it and then find he is still dreaming. The film is filled with some beautifully thoughtful moments where the central character tries to ask a woman in his dream what it is like to be a dreamed character, before ending on a haunting story from a character playing a pinball machine (voiced by Linklater himself) who tells a story about Philip K. Dick and how he believed that everything was a dream we were having from 50 A.D. and the belief that we are all in a single moment whose only choice is between choosing or denying eternity.
Richard Linklater went on to make a further, similarly animated film with the Philip K. Dick adaptation A Scanner Darkly (2006).