Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Cutest Indictment of Humanity You Will Ever See

After the lovable exploits of Remy the rat were immortalized by Pixar in their previous film Ratatouille, I thought they had scaled their tallest mountain. After watching their latest offering, WALL-E, it seems they’ve found a taller mountain and already reached the summit. Director Andrew Stanton humanizes the loveable loser-bot and manages to craft a wonderful love story-cum-message picture which will have viewers questioning society as it currently stands.

WALL-E (or Waste Allocation Load Lifter – Earth Class), which takes place 700 years in the future, is the story of a robot who spends his days making cubes from the trash that covers the barren earth. One day a spaceship lands and a new robot enters his life. EVE (or Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator) arrives and WALL-E quickly goes from curious to enamored. To impress her, he shows her a plant that he found while rummaging among the earthen ruins. As her primary objective is to find plant life, she stashes the plant in a midsection storage cavity and goes into a coma-like state until a ship comes to retrieve her. As WALL-E has no intention of losing his new friend/love interest, he grabs on and rides the ship back to its “mothership”, The Axiom. There he discovers a colony of obese humans and the machines that make life easy for them. Through various mishaps and robotic saboteurs, WALL-E has to help EVE get the plant specimen to the captain, so the humans can initiate their return to earth.

While on the surface, this sounds like a fun children’s movie (and it is plenty of fun), it’s also Pixar’s preachiest film to date. The largest issue the film addresses is that of environmental concerns. In the future, society apparently litters like the dickens, hence the need for the WALL-E units. It is their objective to clean up the planet while all of humanity is aboard the Axiom. During the initial sequence where the film follows WALL-E during his day-to-day routine, earth is nothing but refuse and wasteland and the color scheme of the film reflects as much. Various shades of brown run rampant, but aside from the faded hues of Buy-N-Large Corporation (insert rimshot here) products or advertisements, there is no real color to speak of. When WALL-E happens upon the plant, the green almost reaches off the screen and slaps you with its vibrancy. Red is to Sin City as Green is to WALL-E. This dramatic visual change emphasizes the important role that the plant will play in the film before EVE is even introduced into the film.

The earlier Pixar feature Cars was too one-note in its message of corporations killing small businesses. While WALL-E takes this issue and goes even further with it, they don’t continually harp on it. In the film, the B-N-L corporation achieved global domination. This in itself is a harrowing thought as this says that not only is a hegemonic state possible, but one needn’t even be a country to achieve it. Another dire conclusion which can be drawn from this is that we as a nation are so enmeshed in consumerism, that we would allow a corporation to take over as our national form of representation. Any way you look at it, the situation is grim. And this bleak scenario is wordlessly raised in the first five minutes of the film.

In WALL-E, literally every human shown in the current era (live-action Fred Willard is excluded as his character was pre-recorded 700 years before the events of the film) is obese. The people all get around via mobile chair units which take them wherever their hearts desire aboard the Axiom. While riding, they don’t even have to interact with the people in their immediate vicinity because each chair comes complete with holographic projector screens which are directly in front of the face of the rider. The only thing that occasionally distracts the rider from their screens is the garishly intrusive advertisements that inundate the ship (think talking jumbo-tron billboards). This amalgamated commentary tells us that 1) people are obese due to a sedentary lifestyle which we seem to be doing nothing about, 2) the proliferation of electronic devices is detrimental to us (see point 1), and 3) consumerism consumes us. This is apparently Pixar’s less-than-subtle elbow to the ribs that we should perhaps look at how we are living (too bad we can’t feel it through our fat rolls…).

The film also presents the scenario that humanity has been dehumanized. WALL-E has apparently developed some sort of sentience which gives him a penchant for Rubik’s cubes and VHS copies of Hello, Dolly! (or in other words, a personality). He and EVE both display individual personalities. But once the “humans” are introduced, they are shown to be a uniform mass of obesity and consumerism with no discernable differences between one and another (with the exception of the captain whose duties preclude that he be differentiated, though only slightly). It’s a sad thought that the most human character shown in a film with plenty of people in it is a robot. The only way that the humans are re-humanized is when WALL-E interacts with them on a personal level. Usually, he clumsily runs into their hover chairs and, in a folksy apology, offers his hand and his name. There are three characters that WALL-E particularly interacts with that become re-humanized: two passengers (who end up saving a litter of children from doom) and the captain. The revelation of the captain’s re-humanization is particularly satisfactory for those viewers well-versed in film. As he confronts the ship’s Autopilot, Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra” begins to play in a nod to Kubrick’s glorious 2001: A Space Odyssey letting us know that the captain has officially achieved the status of “human.”

WALL-E is enjoyable on the level of a fun animated movie where robots talking with nasally electronic voices and get into all kinds of hijinks, shenanigans, tomfoolery, and other forms of misadventures. It’s also the story of the love that develops between WALL-E and EVE. And while a viewer can see it at that level and stop there if they so choose, they would be shutting themselves out of a wealth of social commentary that Pixar has taken the liberty to point out. This is Pixar getting up on their soapbox and telling the world to make some changes. I’m just amazed that they were able to make their rant to the country this much fun.

by Jacob Shoaf


Ric Burke said...

This film is yet to hit the English shore and I've read plenty of reviews claiming it to be something great, however this is the first review that has told why it's so good.

Great review, I really can't wait to see this now.

Brandon Colvin said...

I really liked the first part of WALL-E, but after they left earth, I felt the film lost some of its magic, both visually and narratively. The earlier Earth sequences were stunning (no doubt this is where Roger Deakins cinematographic advice came in handy), but the ship sequences were much less poetic and lacked the feeling of detailed handcraftedness that bowled me over early on.

Also, the whole fat humans and overbearing corporations schtick lost all subtlety once Wall-E arrived on-board the Axiom. It was too bluntly satirical, too over the top, and too in your face to really mean anything to me. It was a jarring instance of simplistic caricature in a film otherwise concerned with carefully placed details, tactful characterization, and unobtrusive surehandedness. The message was a little too heavy (haha) for me and the parts of WALL-E that have stuck with me are the brilliant moments of romantic sentimentality and robo-loneliness - the parts that indeed made Wall-E and Eve seem human. Unfortunately, the humans seemed like what they were - fucking cartoons.

James Hansen said...

I'm with Brandon on WALL-E being a tale of two halves. The first half is better than anything Pixar, or all of Disney for that matter, has ever done. It really loses some momentum in the second half, when the film references become overbearing and drown the originality. I appreciated some of the small music references as nods to 2001, but the lumbering out of the seats and the design of Otto were a bit too much.

I don't mind the message, and actually disagree that it is horifically blunt. What was blunt was the characterization of unsustainable human beings (and modern life). It just lost me for a little bit before it got me back in the WONDERFUL ending. When WALL-E gets it right, it really gets it right, but I think there is a lapse in the second half.

All that said, there are enough golden moments of such cinematic joy that WALL-E is probably the most memorable of Pixar's stuff for me. It seems to me that every film Pixar starts out great and then falls apart for a little bit (other than TOY STORY which I still think is the best one...) WALL-E follow suit, but more than makes up for its mistakes just as RATATOUILLE did.

Neil Fulwood said...

"Another dire conclusion which can be drawn from this is that we as a nation are so enmeshed in consumerism, that we would allow a corporation to take over as our national form of representation."

McDonalds, anyone?


Anonymous said...

Wall-E totally looks like the robot from "Short Circuit"... minus the cheesy 80's style of course