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.


UniversalCitizen said...

Hello! I love your review! It seems like most critics are, ironically, not critical thinkers - nothing but fawning praise.

Have you seen the lovely BuyNLarge website the filmmakers set up? So much fun detail.

I am an avid Sci-Fi fan and had many head scratching moments about choices the movie's makers made also - things that seem like they would have been so easy to show in some way to wrap up loose ends.

When the autopilot turned the ship, and everyone tilted over, I was severely surprised and disappointed - such a simple point in a supposedly meticulously created film - and now children all over the planet have a misconception of gravity in a movie they probably loved. Then there's the explanation of the gravity being missing as a reason for their being fat - but that doesn't make sense - there is clearly gravity - but nobody was swimming in the pools, so probably nobody ever exercises. Enough explanation I suppose but why drive home the false explanation?

I also would have loved to see the way energy and material resources are gathered in that they are used so generously on the Axiom. It could have driven home the point of resource waste even better to show them sending out ships to consume other planets or asteroids to get their fuels and materials. Then there is the fact there appears to be NO non-human natural life on the ship - we never see a plant, never see a bird, any animals, any insects. We are supposed to believe the cockroach and the seedling on Earth with WALL*E are the only remaining living things? Then where do the fish and birds and diversity of plant life come from in the rebuilding / recovery montage at the end?

What is the motivation for the humans to embrace life on a desolate and hostile Earth when they have been pampered and taken care of for generations? How do they have kids on the ship if they never meet or interact with each other in person?

The robots on the Axiom are clearly more evolved. Who built the new machines? There appears to be nobody human who is technical or with a job on the ship besides the captain.

How could BuyNLarge build a ship filled with complex robots that could run continually and sort-of sustainably (even if it must mine resources wherever it goes nothing seems to have devolved) for 700 years when the robots on earth are all long dead and the President / CEO of BnL says Earth cannot be recovered? That seems inconsistent.

If they have SO MUCH energy on the Axiom to send over interstellar distances and land a giant, perfectly functioning, complex ship to release INDIVIDUAL probes regularly over 700 years, how could they not build machines to successfully clean up the earth? Wouldn't dropping the probes into the atmosphere and then only landing if they need to retrieve them make more sense? Eve seems to have INCREDIBLE power to fly very fast and far. And what is that weapon and itchy trigger finger for anyhow, in a probe to discover plant life? Especially when the bots to try to stop the rogue robots on the Axiom don't seem to have ANY weapons? She could have EASILY destroyed WALL*E, her only chance to find the plant, and even the only plant itself. After all, WALL*E had put it somewhere with no light or water.

What was the motivation for the "bad" robots? Obviously, the Top Secret status of the info why they were not to return to earth is overridden by the captain, why not simple instructions to return home? They seemed too... actively evil. If they were just following orders, and most of the robots were showing signs of sentience, isn't destroying them equivalent to murder?

Would have loved to see more of the slow control of humans by the corporations - and a better parallel for our current fascism and corporate control. Why did they use a single real human actor for the CEO anyhow? That was jarring to me. I don't recall any ethnic diversity on the ship either, now that I think about it.

And while I appreciate that the robots were given 'sexes' most likely to make the love story more engaging for MOST of the audience, I really wish Eve hadn't had a "womb" that WALL*E gave his male "seed"-ling into. Why so much gender sexuality for robots? WEIRD. As a gay man, I had hoped that stories of robots in love might lead to people seeing the injustice of denying any sentient beings the rights to be in love. I can still hope.

Anyhow, I am sure I could go on, but I wish they had taken a little time to be more complete with their story. I think it would have been more educational for people without them even realizing, made its point much better, and would have made it easier for me to say I LOVED rather than just LIKED the film.


emeraldimp said...

Thank you!

I hadn't seen the BuyNLarge site... Quite interesting what folks are doing these days in regards to mixing fiction and reality! (Not that setting up a site for a fictional company in a film is original, but still...)

I hadn't noticed some of the things you mention - the symbolism of EVE's womb and the uniformity of the humans, for example - but I agree completely. (Except I'm willing to believe, as my boyfriend says, that the BNL CEO was knowingly lying about microgravity being the cause of their weight.)

Is it murder to kill sentient beings? Yep, but remember, if they're evil, it's ok, at least in Disney movies (Gaston in Beauty and the Beast, Scar in The Lion King, etc).

Oh, well. It's better at least, than many sci-fi films. I just hope we'll see more improvement in the future.

Now, back to Heinlein (Starship Troopers)!

BTW, do you have a blog?

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