Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Hello, WALL-E!

I'm not sure if Pixar is even trying to make films for kids anymore, and I love them for that (as a non-child). They're definitely still advertising for kids, though, because I was totally blindsided by the scope, beauty, and social resonance of WALL-E. The commercials made it seem kind of goofy, like all WALL-E did was run into things in a cute fashion. While he does run into a lot of things, and very cutely at that, the clumsiness is only one facet of WALL-E's personality. Ironically, a robot who communicates mainly with noises is more three-dimensional than most humans in films today. In that same vein, WALL-E is much, much better than most films released today, animated or otherwise. I don't think of WALL-E as an animated film, or a kids' one - I just think of it as a film, a true piece of art. And that's maybe the highest compliment I can give it.

Watching WALL-E, I felt like I was seeing a film for the first time. It's a completely transcendent experience. I've rarely been gripped by such a palpable sense of awe. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Here's the plot: It's 700 years in the future, Earth is a post-apocalyptic wasteland (with visuals worthy of something like Children of Men) unable to sustain life, the complacently clueless surviving humans are living on a huge space liner somewhere in the galaxy, turned into drooling androids by their total dependence on technology, and WALL-E has been left behind on Earth, totally alone. Well, he has a cockroach friend, and we all know the implications of that. There are plenty of Twinkies, too, and as the myth goes...well, we know that what happened to Earth was catastrophic. WALL-E's function is to compact trash and make it into tidy little boxes. Then, he stacks them and creates buildings out of the garbage. He's been there long enough to have his own metropolis. This is all WALL-E knows, what's he been programmed to do. But somewhere during the course of those 700 years, WALL-E developed a personality and a desire to want more from his existence. While compacting, he picks out the items he likes and hordes them, very much like Ariel from The Little Mermaid. "Look at this stuff, isn't it neat?" Sorry, I couldn't help myself.

So, one day WALL-E is dutifully going about his work, which is lorded over by the ghosts of a mega-company called Buy N Large (stores, billboards, talking ads loom over the city), and a spaceship lands, leaving behind a robot. This robot looks fancy (WALL-E is falling apart), exhibits some aggressive tendencies, and is focused on her (yes, her) objective - scanning Earth for vegetation to see if it's okay to repopulate. Her name is EVE, and the survival of mankind hinges on her discoveries. Pretty brilliant, huh?

WALL-E falls instantly in love with EVE, and she kind of likes him, too. Well, it turns out that WALL-E did find a tiny plant, and when he shows it to EVE in his efforts to impress her with his loot, she scans it, gets the green affirmative symbol, puts the precious proof of life inside of her, and locks down. WALL-E is crushed and continues to care for EVE even though she's turned off (literally) and can't respond. It's incredibly romantic. Soon, EVE's ship comes back to reclaim her, and WALL-E, smitten, tags along on the outside of the craft. They then end up at the Axiom, the luxury liner in outer space housing the humans. The rest of the film follows the fate of that one plant, and ultimately the fate of humanity. That's heavy stuff for ANY film, but even more impressive because it's in this one.

I can't imagine how kids have reacted to WALL-E. Even I couldn't wrap my mind around all of the things that the film was saying. I continue to vigorously ponder its messages. I've seen it twice, and I know there's still more untapped brilliance waiting to be found on subsequent viewings. All I can say is that I think they'll appreciate it when they get older; for now, they're just happy with the slapstick and the adorable merchandise (and WALL-E is a total cutie pie). Speaking of the slapstick in the film, it's on par with anything Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, or Harold Lloyd ever did. I've heard that after seeing Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Chaplin bestowed a standing ovation upon it. He would for WALL-E, too, and it would be even longer and more exuberant. WALL-E contains some of the most intricately choreographed and marvelous physical comedy I've ever seen (Pixar also plays around with it quite a bit in the fantastic magic-themed short preceding WALL-E, Presto). The film contains very little dialogue (Jeff Garlin as the ship's captain and Sigourney Weaver as the voice of the ship's computer get the most to say, and do a great job at it - the rest of the communication is in "robot speak", which I'll explain later), but there's always something going on that no doubt had to be elaborately described in the script, which is why I think this would be the ideal screenplay for film students just starting out and making silents (as I did at Columbia) to study.

WALL-E is a masterful specimen of filmmaking. Technically, it's flawless. The animation is staggering, as you would expect, but don't take it for granted. The visuals are the perfect blend of tasty and nutritious. I felt like I was devouring the screen. The score by Thomas Newman is simultaneously grave and gorgeous and sure to be nominated for an Oscar (if Ratatouille got a nomination for a totally forgettable score, WALL-E is definitely worthy of a nomination and should, justice provided, get one, the latter depending on what other scores pop up as the year goes along, of course). I am, however, POSITIVE that Peter Gabriel's hauntingly catchy tune o'er the end credits, "Down to Earth," will be nominated for Best Original Song. The script by Andrew Stanton and Pete Docter, like I already mentioned, is a triumph. Stanton also directs, proving that he is Pixar's resident genius (sorry, Brad Bird), the force to be reckoned with around the studio. He confidently conducts WALL-E like a symphony.

The robotic voice work is stunning. WALL-E and EVE only communicate by saying their names, making sounds, or repeating a few choice words. Yet, more is expressed with the simplest "EVE" or "WALL-E" in this film than with the most articulate, long-winded soliloquy. Ben Burtt is the sound design maestro responsible for WALL-E (and other characters, including the spunky cleaning bot M-O). Elissa Knight, an actual human, provided the voice for EVE, but it was digitized by Burtt. WALL-E is the result of no human voice whatsoever - only noises mind-blowingly created and mixed together by Burtt. It's unbelievable how much emotion is packed into WALL-E's voice. If WALL-E doesn't get some kind of sound Oscar or recognition for Burtt (through the techie Oscars, at least), then I'll have beef with the Academy...and we all know that's unusual for me.

WALL-E is truly one of the most endearing and complex characters ever created. I adore his dedication and loyalty (to EVE and to his work), indomitable spirit, selflessness, hopefulness, belief in the power of love, and even his anxiety and neuroses. His relationship with EVE is exquisite. WALL-E is seriously one of the most romantic films ever made. One particularly breathtaking scene involves WALL-E, EVE, the stars, and a fire extinguisher. It's a lover's ballet. I was rooting for these two robots to get together more than I do for most live action pairs. And it didn't seem the least bit silly, not even when WALL-E's sole romantic inspiration, his only basis for love, is a worn-out VHS of Hello, Dolly! that teaches him how to court, dance, kiss, and hold hands (the most important gesture of affection and devotion for WALL-E).

Without telling you what happens, WALL-E is perhaps the single most subtle, beautiful, and effective cautionary tale about humanity's greed, over-consumption, all-encompassing reliance on technology, lack of interpersonal connections, and disregard for the environment and Earth, all of which allows them to continue their mindless self-destruction. Does that sound harsh? The sad part is that it's not inaccurate. I'm a cynic (frankly, any American not after 8 years of Dubya deserves a Nobel Peace Prize or something), and WALL-E gave me hope that things could change, but not without shaking my soul first. WALL-E is quite a dark film, but it's disguised so well that you might not even realize it until it's over. I was enthralled from the first second, but even then, it managed to sneak up on me and hit me hard.

I've heard people say that all of the humans on Earth were saved and are now living on the Axiom liner. I don't know when the last time you counted was, but last time I checked, we were hovering around six billion people on the planet. There are not six billion people on that ship. Not even close. Most of humanity is extinct. And of the people on the ship, most are white (not sure if that was intentional, but it probably was). They're also all really fat due to the comforts of technology (space gravity is an issue, as well - bone loss and what not), and they don't know how to function or interact without it. The passengers float around (literally) in a totally clueless, comatose state. It's very pod people-esque, as evidenced by the captain's proclamation after snapping out of it: "I don't want to survive! I want to live!" I think the sheep-like, sedated state of the people on the ship means two things: 1) humankind needs to cool it with the technology, escape its clutches, and learn to live without it, and 2) the remaining government wants the people rendered helpless so they don't ask questions. That's scary in its feasibility.

So, since we see that cockroaches and Twinkies are still around, we know that there was some huge nuclear crisis that caused destruction of the planet as well as a holocaust. Whether this happened before or after the rampant pollution, I'm not sure, nor does it matter. Earth is completely covered in garbage. In fact, since there's no room for it on Earth anymore (despite the compacting efforts of WALL-E and his colleagues), trash is being projected ("disposed of") into space. The general climate of the film also leads me to believe that global warming eventually lived up to the hype. Apparently, a lot happened, and it was all our fault. I'm not being facetious either. Earth didn't destroy itself - we did. WALL-E deals with these issues deeply, sensitively, and movingly without reducing the severity of its moral and social messages one bit. And despite all of the horrible stuff that happens to humanity in the film, the real beauty of WALL-E is that it's not nihilistic. How refreshing and remarkable.

There have been rumors about WALL-E getting a Best Picture nod, and I wouldn't be surprised. It deserves it. I'm not sure what'll happen if it ends up getting nominated for Best Picture AND Best Animated Film (I mean, whether it'll split the votes and tragically get nothing), but I'd like to at least see. Here's my predictions for WALL-E's Oscar nominations: Best Picture, Best Sound Design, Best Animated Film, Best Score, Best Original Song, Best Screenplay. We'll see how right or wrong I am in about six months.

I have never liked 2001. Yeah, yeah, I know. Cue the throwing of the rotten fruit and vegetables. I just think it's boring as all heck. BUT, I respect it tremendously. It's the benchmark that started science fiction as we know it now. I would even call it the quintessential science fiction film. WALL-E is also worthy of that title. It's just as significant historically, socially, and cinematically, but I find it fascinating and enchanting as a story to boot. WALL-E displays as much reverence toward the beauty and bigger-than-us quality of outer space and life as 2001, and it's truly as powerful, profound, and philosophical as 2001, or any other science fiction film for that matter (I recently compared Danny Boyle's Sunshine to 2001 in its awe-inspiring nature, divine visuals, and poignancy, and I stand by it). That's darn good company to keep.

WALL-E moved me so deeply and stole my heart. It made me laugh, it made me think, and it made me cry. As generic as those last statements of mine might be, I promise WALL-E is anything but.

In the increasingly impressive Pixar pantheon, WALL-E is the best. It's also the second best film I've seen in 2008 so far.

Rating: ***** (out of 5)


Anonymous said...

I have to beg to differ.

"So, since we see that cockroaches and Twinkies are still around, we know that there was some huge nuclear crisis that caused destruction of the planet as well as a holocaust."....

there was no huge distruction. just a continuation of the way we are living now but more so. more waste, one huge corporation (think giant walmart selling everything). and tons and tons of waste. no radiation. just trash. EVERYWHERE.

just IMHO.


Anonymous said...

The film is so upliftingly hopeful precisely because of it's starkness. It doesn't view the world through rose-colored glasses, but it does present us with one of the most engaging protagonists of the early 21st century. And the love story is all the more amazing because the filmmakers don't cheat with cartoonish expressions or obvious dialogue. I don't think the word love is even mentioned once. But this film is truly an ode to love in every sense of the word.

As always, your blog is a pleasure to read.

Lisa Draski said...

I appreciate your opinion, Ken, but haven't you heard the myth that only cockroaches and Twinkies will survive a nuclear war (read: annihilation)?

The specific inclusion of these two things by the filmmakers is a very clear statement (and a subtle one) as to what happened.

That's IMHO, though, Ken.

Thank you for the lovely and insightful comments, anonymous.

Thanks to both of you for your comments and for reading!

patrick said...

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

Bill Treadway said...

The usual well written review. You have such a way with words. Keep it up!

Arthur C. Clarke mentioned in his intro to his novel 2010 that Kubrick told him he wanted to create the "proverbial good sci-fi movie". Too bad neither Kubrick or Clarke lived to see WALL-E. It deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as 2001, Brainstorm (the Christopher Walken one, not the dud from the 60s)and the early Star Trek films (the first four)

I think it should be up for major Oscars but it's got a LONG uphill battle. The prejudice against animation and comedy with the Oscars really has to come to an end. As satisfying as good drama can be, animation and comedy can be just as accomplished and maybe even more effective with certain material.

I guess my brother deserves that Nobel Peace Prize because he's blissfully ignorant and optimistic towards the Devil's Spawn Dubya..

steve said...

An astonishingly beautiful and well-written review. Steve NFPB