Updated: Feb 18, 2021
As with all movies on this website, our goal is not to provide a complete synopsis of the film, but rather to document how the movie relates to the meaning of life. With that said, be forewarned, there are still spoilers ahead.
Waking Life, written and directed by Richard Linklater first premiered in 2001. As the movie opens, the audience is immediately drawn into the world of oneironauts, the dreamworld. The animation was created using a " 21st-century rotoscoping" technique. This technique gave the film an eerie feel which added to its surreal nature as shown in the trailer below.
The movie discusses many philosophical concepts, e.g., the nature of dreams, life, free will, existentialism, lucid dreaming, and more. In addition, the film is mentioned in various books on movies and the meaning of life—Movies and the Meaning of Life: Philosophers Take on Hollywood and Movies and the Meaning of Life: The Most Profound Films in Cinematic History. But despite the widespread mania in books and the internet to relate Waking Life to the meaning of life, there doesn't appear to be a strong correlation between the two. Rather, the film could better be described as relating to the nature of life, rather than its meaning. One may even venture so far as to say it is heavily religious given Buddhist and Aboriginal undertones.
Waking Life opens with a younger version of the main character, Wiley Wiggins, and a girl playing paper fortune teller. The game reveals to Wiley that, Dream is destiny — which according to Movies and the Meaning of Life: The Most Profound Films in Cinematic History, is a Buddhist concept; one which results in a "true" awakening at the time of death, an ascension into the dreamworld. Early in the film, Wiley is hit by a car, but it is unclear if this is part of the waking world, or that of the dreamworld. But what is clear, is that subsequently, Wiley is never able to return to the waking world. Although he awakes several times, he does so only to find himself still in the hands of Morpheus, still dreaming. For everyone else, as the movie would put it, it seems like everyone's sleep-walking through their waking state or wake-walking through their dreams.
Without delving too far into the story, there are a number of valuable lessons related to the nature of life and how to live it highlighted in the film. In the first few minutes, Wiley hitches a ride in a "see-worthy" boat car. A car not built for the sea, but rather just to see on land. The chauffeur adds that we are all given a box of crayons at birth, some get the 8 pack, and others get the 16; but it is not how many crayons we are given, rather it is what we do with them that colors our lives. The act of creation can aid us in our quest for meaning.
Later, Wiley sits in a philosophy class where Robert C. Solomon is lecturing on existentialism, but instead of taking the despondent view of hopelessness, he instead embraces its exuberance—your life is yours to create, rather than one directed by God. Thereafter, Wiley meets another person who talks about creation arising from striving and frustration; the need to transcend what we were, and the isolation; the need to form relationships and bonds with others. After all, it is only amongst others that meaning is defined. The act of creation, and the boundless allowance of creation in the dream world is a constant theme throughout the film, and one that can loosely be argued to correspond to the meaning of life—albeit, the film lets it up to the viewer to connect the dots between the many philosophical conversations and monologues.
Besides meaning and the act of creation, the film also touches upon gripping subjects like life after death. Not the afterlife kind, but rather the one where the mind may survive for several minutes after the physical body dies, and where the individual is left in a disconnected state with only his or her thoughts. That is, at least until the brain catches up with that of the body, and also dies. This in and of itself sounds quite frightening. The individual's self-awareness that it has died, and its reflection on the fact afterwards. This idea was also covered by Big Think in 2017. In the same scene, reincarnation is also discussed, and the character discusses the statistics of the matter. For example, if the world population has doubled in the last 40 years, then the chance that your "eternal" soul is more than 40 years old, is about 50 percent, and for it to be over 150 years old, then the chances decrease to about 15 percent.
A few scenes later and free will is discussed by David Sosa (playing himself). However, as in other posts outlined on the website, it appears that David missed one of the big points, that free can be an emergent phenomenon. That is, instead of viewing us as a cog in a machine where we are powerless to determine our future, or worse yet, just a probability mechanism resulting from quantum mechanics, free will can be viewed as an emergent phenomenon; just as life emerged from an otherwise dead universe.
Overall, there are many other great concepts, philosophies, and thought-provoking dynamics explored throughout the film. With that said, it would not be correct as many articles have, to say the film is about the meaning of life. Rather, the film is more about the nature of life and what follows thereafter, and about the importance of creation to self-aware beings such as ourselves.
Some great quotes from the movie:
Soap Opera Girl: Life is a matter of a miracle that is collected over time by moments flabbergasted to be in each other's presence. The world is an exam to see if we can rise into the direct experiences. Our eyesight is here as a test to see if we can see beyond it. Matter is here as a test for our curiosity. Doubt is here as an exam for our vitality... I would say that life understood is life lived.
Pinball Playing Man: And so time is actually just this constant saying no to God's invitation... There's just this one instant, and that's what we're always in. (Discussing Philip K. Dick's story How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later)
Guy Forsyth: The trick is to combine your waking rational abilities with the infinite possibilities of your dreams. Because, if you can do that, you can do anything.
Did you see the movie? What did you think? Does the movie discuss the meaning of life, or more so the nature of life itself?
Overall - 8 Meaning of Life Relevance - 5 Uniqueness – 10