Striking colors are relentlessly splashed on every frame of film, conjuring a revolutionary beauty. The characters’ faces are abstract Easter Islandish slabs, but every grin or grimace is registered clearly. Outdoor vistas resemble paintings by a gifted preschooler; interiors pulsate and fluctuate, oblivious to the normal cinematic rules of time and space.
All in all, Waking Life provides a jumbo portion of eye candy for the price of a movie ticket—and that’s before any of the characters open their mouths.
The visual experience of watching this Sundance darling is difficult to describe, and even more difficult to absorb in the theater. It’s the latest in the series of recent pictures putting progressive visual technology to cinematic use. Everything from Toy Story to Final Fantasy has pushed these boundaries, and though the places they’ve ended up haven’t always been that great, the journey is fascinating.
Director Richard Linklater (Slacker, Dazed and Confused) shot Waking Life in perfectly normal fashion, but then used a team of 30 graphic artists to paint each frame with computer techniques from a program written by the film’s art director, Bob Sabiston. You’ve seen something vaguely similar in those Earthlink television commercials, but not to this impressive extent.
The story, if you can call it that, begins when some guy (Wiley Wiggins) arrives in Austin (at least we think it’s Austin) either shortly before or after he’s hit by a car, which does or does not knock him into a coma. That’s when dozens of people—Linklater regulars like Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy—start showing up to expound on all manner of topics: art, love, death, brains and everything in between. It’s meant as a heavy-duty examination of real life, but viewers can’t really concentrate when they’re so busy checking out the pretty colors.
Once the spectacle of Linklater’s visual ideas becomes more familiar and less enthralling, however, it’s difficult to stick with this philosophy seminar disguised as a moving painting. Linklater has crammed a postgraduate semester’s worth of grab-bag rhetoric into his film, and it’s simply difficult to tell if it’s going anywhere, or if we even should care. Waking Life may indeed be brilliant, but it begins to feel like a homework film—those movies you watch because everybody says they’re really important and thought-provoking, but actually have all the flair and attraction of a 10-page term paper and 60 long division problems.
As usual, Linklater is conducting an experiment that interests him a great deal more than the average moviegoer. He’s admirably iconoclastic, subverting genres with chatty screenplays that never quite follow expectations. The film essentially is a long discourse on existence—combined with a really cool computer program his buddy made—and our patience wanders from Linklater’s diatribes simply because we’re looking at his visual creations instead. And chances are, we’re not missing much. It’s only the theatrical qualities of Waking Life that will get the discussion going at the coffeehouse after the viewing.
Though this is likely the least narrative film he’s made (even less so than Slacker, oddly), it’s clear he’s experimenting on several levels here, which must be applauded. Its visual theatrics aside, Waking Life has something in common with Timecode and Memento, two recent films which prodded and tweaked narrative structure in somewhat the same way computer animation has expanded visual structure. Linklater deserves credit for taking a new variation on an old art form to an impressive destination.
It’s a beautiful film. You’ll just wish it wouldn’t talk quite so much.
Waking Life (R) **1/2. Directed by Richard Linklater. Starring Wiley Wiggins, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy.