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Western Animation: Waking Life

"Dream is destiny."

Waking Life is a 2001 semi-animated film by Richard Linklater. The plot follows a young man walking through a lucid dream where he observes and enters into dialogue about lofty philosophical concepts and theories. The film itself was initially shot on digital video, and then drawn over by a team of animators. The resulting look is fairly unique, and manages to evoke dream-like imagery on a shoestring budget.

Despite lacking a traditional plot, visuals, or even trained actorsnote , the film won a great deal of praise for its innovation and unique look. Roger Ebert would add it to his list of Great Movies in 2009.


This rotoscoped animation provides examples of:

  • Ambiguously Brown: The Dreamer, played by Wiggins.
  • Arc Words: "Dream is destiny."
  • All Just a Dream: Inverted. It's the point of the plot, not a plot point.
    • Played with by Speed Levitch:
      Speed: And as one realizes... that one is a dream figure in another person's dream, that is self-awareness!
  • Author Appeal: Richard Linklater is very passionate about philosophy. He's also admitted that his lucid dreaming played a part in the writing.
  • Book Ends: The beginning and end of the movie take place at the same house and the same car. Only in the end, the Dreamer is unable to hold onto the car door.
  • Call Back: When the dream transforms into a nightmare, several characters reappear as different characters.
  • The Cameo: Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy play their characters from Before Sunrise and Before Sunset in one scene, also written and directed by Linklater.
    • As mentioned above, Alex Jones, the fringe political radio host, basically plays himself for one scene.
    • Two Creator Cameos; Linklater is the other hitcher on the boatship at the beginning and the pinball player that speaks with the main character near the end.
    • The woman who talks about her life in the past tense played Wiggins' mother in Dazed and Confused.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: The old man on the telephone pole. Deconstructed by a group of characters who muse they're no better than the old man:
    Man #1: Stupid bastard.
    Man #2: No worse than us. He's all action, no theory. We'll all theory, no action.
  • Contemplate Our Navels: Pretty much the whole point.
  • Creator Cameo: Linklater, twice. Lampshaded by The Dreamer.
  • Creepy Monotone: "I remember where I came from and how I became a human. Why I hung around. And now my final departure is scheduled. This way out. Escaping velocity. Not just eternity, but infinity."
  • Dead All Along: One interpretation, but by no means the only one. The Dreamer frets about it near the end, telling his fears to the pinball playing man.
    TV Woman: All through the centuries, the notion that life is wrapped in a dream has been a pervasive theme of philosophers and poets. So doesn't it make sense that death, too, would be wrapped in dream? That, after death, your conscious life would continue in what might be called, "a dream body"? It would be the same dream body you experience in your everyday dream life. Except that in the post-mortal state, you could never again wake up, never again return to your physical body.
  • The Dead Can Dance: The waltzers near the end of the film seem to be engaged in a danse macabre.
  • Deranged Animation: Several scenes specifically; arguably the film's style as a whole.
  • Despair Event Horizon: When The Dreamer wakes up from a dream to find himself in another dream once too often, he despairs and starts to think he's already dead.
  • Dream Within a Dream: The entire film.
  • Empathic Environment: As The Dreamer grows depressed, and the subject starts to broach the subject of death, the world similarly becomes darker and more forboding, as the soundtrack starts to become more dissonant and threatening.
  • Follow the Leader: Both this and Slacker are heavily inspired by Louis Malle's My Dinner With Andre.
  • Gainax Ending
  • I Just Shot Marvin in the Face / Reckless Gun Usage: Steven Prince accidentally shoots the bartender to see if his gun's still loaded. The bartender gets him back.
  • Mind Screw: Much of the film, though one scene in particular is notable. The protagonist is discussing a woman's plan for a "real-life" soap opera when he realizes he's dreaming again. He then asks her what it's like being a dream, inflicting this on the woman (her dialogue becomes much less composed). She still challenges The Dreamer:
    Soap Opera Woman: We seem to think we're so limited by the world and— and the confines, but we're really just creating them. And you keep trying to figure it out, but it seems like now that you know that what you’re doing is dreaming, you can do whatever you want to. You're, uh, dreaming, but you’re awake. You have, um, so many options, and that's what life is about.
    • Then, when he says that he'd been passive (in the first half of the movie), just listening to other characters orate:
      Soap Opera Woman: It's not necessarily passive to not respond verbally. We're communicating on so many levels simultaneously. Perhaps you're— you're perceiving directly.
  • Mood Whiplash: All of the place. You go from Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in bed dreamily discussing reincarnation to a red-bodied prisoner screaming about revenge to David Sosa calmly discussing free will to Alex Jones yelling about corporate slavery through a car bullhorn, for instance.
  • No Name Given: Nobody in the film has a name. The credits have to use pictures of the characters for identifying the actors. It's even a minor plot point that the main character can't remember his name (which is also pretty hard to do in your real dreams).
  • Red Body Take Warning: The prisoner's entire body is red, an external representation of his rage.
  • Rotoscoping
  • Schrödinger's Butterfly: The film is a series of psychedelic sequences which mostly feature the main character as an observer, and many of them segue with him waking up yet again.
  • Seinfeldian Conversation: Averted with great prejudice.
  • The Singularity: Early in the film, the protagonist listens to a man give a lengthy rant on this topic.
  • Speech-Centric Work: Various characters talking - indeed, in some cases ranting - for the duration of the running time. That's it.
  • Spiritual Sequel: Linklater's 2004 A Scanner Darkly adaptation. Both were shot in the same rotoscoped style.
    • Also, Waking Life itself to his first film, Slacker. Both go from character to character, discussing whatever's on their mind. Waking Life has slightly more plot, though.
  • Stealth Parody: Possibly used against Alex Jones. While he is yelling one of his monologues over a car loudspeaker, the animation slowly increases his skin hue to brighter, darker shades of red. This could just be a simple exaggeration used in many pieces of animation, or a reference to the imprisoned psychopath who is shown in the same way earlier in the movie.
    • However, it may just be because he is behind a windshield which has a severe glare; only the general features of Jones could be seen in the original Mini-DV video.
  • Transhuman Alien: Implied by the Creepy Monotone speaker.
  • Uncanny Valleyinvoked: The entire point of the rotoscoping.
  • You Look Familiar: In-universe. Everyone from the first scene (in the "Boat Car") reappear again as different characters.

Super perfundo on the early eve of your day...
VictimRoger Ebert Great Movies ListWalkabout
Undercover BrotherFilms of 2000 - 2004 A Walk to Remember
Vuk The Little FoxAnimated FilmsWakko's Wish

alternative title(s): Waking Life; Waking Life
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