Monday, June 30, 2008

WALL*E (2008)

Pixar Animation Studios, Walt Disney Pictures
Directed by: Andrew Stanton

The Earth, from space. (Surrounded by a thick layer of satellites.)

Music plays:
Out there
There's a world outside of Yonkers
Way out there beyond this hick town, Barnaby
There's a slick town, Barnaby

Long zoom in. The Earth, circa 2800. The oceans are dry, and no vegetation can be seen.

The zoom continues. Now we can make out towering buildings, teetering slightly.

Zoom in further. The music fades in and out as a tiny speck moves across the screen.

More zoom. They're not buildings, but enormous towers of trash. And the tiny speck is a robot--the last robot on Earth.

For this opening scene alone I would buy the movie when it comes out on DVD.

The robot is, of course, the movie's titular character WALL*E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class), the last survivor of many thousands (millions?) of robots designed and built by the Buy'N Large Company (BNL) to clean up the Earth after it had been spoiled by humanity.

WALL*E spends its days compacting trash and collecting the few rare treasures it finds amongst the waste, until a spaceship visits Earth and leaves behind a probe called EVE, which is there to discover whether the planet has become inhabitable again. (And is, of course, the eventual romantic interest for the solitary WALL*E.)

I loved this movie. I knew I would enjoy it from the moment I heard it was from Pixar - how's that for a reputation? - but the film exceeded my expectations completely. From the opening shot described above, to the dance in space, to the cinematography, to the social and political commentary, it's a rare piece of true science fiction in film that's approachable and entertaining. (I read a review that compared WALL*E to Kubrik's 2001: A Space Odyssey, and let me say, while the comparison may be apt in terms of cinematography, WALL*E is a film I will watch again.)

The main themes of the movie are environmentalism, consumerism, conformity/self-identity and, of course, love. Love is explored through EVE and WALL*E - WALL*E's personality has developed through ages of operation, and EVE's slowly develops through its interaction with WALL*E (though there are some hints at it from its first appearance, and also in the other robots throughout the movie). I find it somewhat unfortunate that EVE and WALL*E are gendered (EVE is the aloof exotic, barely even aware of WALL*E, who is the goofy lonester that eventually wins her heart), even though it is fairly minimal overall. I understand, though, that it is done to help the movie be more approachable to a mainstream audience.

Consumerism and conformity are wrapped up together in the surviving humans and their "benevolent" ruler, the Buy'N Large Corporation. By the time the Earth is evacuated, 700 years prior to the movie's setting, BNL has taken control of the entire planet - no service provided is not touched (or offered outright) by BNL. As the refuse problem spirals out of control, BNL constructs vast space ships to carry Earth's population away; ostensibly on a 5-year cruise while the robots clean the planet. It reminds me greatly of the fiction of Frederik Pohl, particularly The Merchants' War.

Modern humanity, of a much expanded sort, continues to live in these space ships; or at least on one, the Axiom, where all needs are tended to by an army of robots as people are rushed about upon hover chairs, drinking the latest Cupcake-in-a-cup and chatting with their neighbors via the chair's screens. Unfortunately, two of these supposedly mindless creatures are pulled out of their chairs and begin to discover the world around them. The concept would be much more terrifying if they didn't, much more impactful, although it does allow the filmmaker to point out the wonders - simple and grand - that everyone else is missing, so I suppose it's not all bad.

Environmentalism is the most obvious theme, of course. The Earth has been ravaged beyond habitation. No plants grow in this wasteland. And yet, this disregard is continued on the Axiom, where garbage is fed into the bowels of the ship, to be compacted by enormous WALL*As before being jettisoned into space (can you tell the ships were designed by BNL?).

This leads me to my biggest complaint about the movie: believability. There were moments when I was cocking my head to one side and saying, "Does not compute!" The physics is not terrible, and most of it could probably be easily explained away, but some of the physics problems were: were does the gravity on the ship come from? Why does everyone fall to the side when the ship turns, exactly like on a sea-faring ship? Where do they get the energy or raw materials for everything consumed by the humans? How can humans - big, fat humans - that have spent their entire lives in their hover chairs stand up and walk at the end?

But the most important believability failure is something I've only just now realized: we are left with the presumption at the end that everything will be all right now: the humans have learned their lesson and will now become the proper stewards they should've been all along. But how? These humans have spent their entire lives not having to think about stewardship and conservation, not to mention several generations before them as well. They hadn't changed when WALL*E arrived, as evidenced by the tons of waste jettisoned each minute. While I will admit the events of the movie are certainly a life-changing experience, I can't believe they could change so drastically so quickly.

However, despite all of these nit-picks, I still highly recommend WALL*E for everyone. You won't be disappointed.

(PS I almost want to call this WALL*E: An Ambiguous Dystopia, because the contrast between Earth and Axiom remind me of Ursula K. LeGuin's The Dispossesed: An Ambiguous Utopia. But that's probably discourse for another time.)

Please read UniversalCitizen's comment as well; he addresses many other troubling points with the movie.
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