Thursday, July 3, 2008

About WALL-E (with many, MANY, Spoilers)

Last weekend I took in WALL-E, not once, but twice. Once without the kids, and once with them in tow. (In a bizarre twist, on the first showing the projectionist reversed the second and third film reels so we ended up seeing those parts of the film out of order. That was a first for me.)

It's a remarkable film. Perhaps the most culturally significant and important work Pixar has done to date, which is saying something.

Here's the plot in a nutshell. Humanity, having thoroughly trashed the Earth, leaves in a bunch of resort-like starships, leaving behind a bunch of robots to clean up the mess while they're away. (Incidentally, the entire world is run by a single Wal-Mart style megacorporation called Big 'n Large, or BnL.) Of course, the plan fails, humanity stays in outer space for the next 700 years and the only remaining robot functioning on Earth is Wall-E, who, of course, has developed sentience.

Every so often a ship is sent back to Earth with a robot, EVE in this case, designed to seek out plant life, an indicator that humanity can return. Of course, it just so happens that WALL-E has such a plant, and of course EVE runs smack dab into WALL-E, who having been alone so long with nothing to do but absorb aspects of human culture (including watching an old movie musical), falls immediately in love. The notion of sentient machines is the only real conceit you, as the viewer, have to get over. If you can, you're all set to love this film. If you can't, enjoying this film does become more difficult.

As the lovestruck are prone to doing, WALL-E follows EVE back to her ship and, thus, back to humanity's mothership where we find that humanity no longer does anything for itself. Robots all run the show while we sit on hover chairs that do everything for us, while our only interaction with anything is via the chair's videoscreen. We also all weigh no less than 400 pounds. Chaos, of course, ensues as WALL-E, EVE, the ship's captain (a human) and a bunch of "malfunctioning" robots take up the cause of preserving this plant and returnign to Earth in the face of some other robot overlords whose directive is to keep humanity in space for all time. Ultimately, we return to Earth under the promise that humanity will learn from past mistakes and start anew.

Thus begins one of the best closing credit sequences I've ever seen, in which an entire second story -that of humanity's attemps to revitalize the Earth- is told through a series of semi-animated pieces of artwork that starts off looking like cave drawings and matures through the various other core artistic styles of our history. (Note that in going to two showings of this movie, almost nobody stuck around to see this credit sequence. Sometimes we, as a society, are just as pathetic as this movie portrays us.)

As much as this film is about two robots falling in love, WALL-E is really about humanity and what it is to be human. It's also a comment about our culture of waste and its ongoing impact on our environment. Given that, I'm not the least bit surprised the lunatic fringe of the political right is going ape shit over it. I mean if the Michelle Malkin's of the world find Rachel Ray's choice in scarves objectionable, then a movie about a trashed Earth that humanity has left behind and an incompetent corporate monolith that basically runs everything is sure to send the fringe right off the deep end. (Note that when I say "fringe" I do mean fringe. Regardless of your political bent you have to acknowledge that both the left and right have their loonies. I've read that a fair share of lunatic lefties thought The Incredibles was too objectivist.)

But all that isn't what makes this movie great. It's the way it's all implemented. WALL-E and EVE have very little dialog, per se. Most of their communication is driven through visuals and non-verbal sound. It's amazing the range of emotions that can come from the most simple of acts and gestures and the way Pixar can use those acts and gestures to tell an entire story borders on perfection. Story ideas are a dime a dozen, but implementing those ideas successfully is a whole 'nother ball game and Pixar once again affirms themslves as the absolute masters of telling stories. (Even if you don't like the premise behind a film like Cars, you still have to appreciate how well the movie tells its story.)

It's easy to watch this film and be disgusted with the slothful condition humanity has lapsed into. But it's a mistake to interpret that as Pixar telling us we're nothing but a bunch of lazy slobs and this is where we're headed. The humans in this film aren't to be despised, rather they're there to be empathized with. They don't know any other life than the one they were born into. They weren't raised to know they had a choice. But when, through the events of the film, they're confronted with said choice? They rally. They choose to get up out of their hover chairs and return to an Earth that won't fully recover from past sins without their help. In a lot of ways they're heroes. All they needed was the push that WALL-E and EVE provide. It's all very neatly summed up in a moment when the ship's autopilot says to the captain that his directive is to ensure humanity's survival and the captain retorts, "I don't want to survive. I want to live!"

This is not to say WALL-E isn't without its flaws. In fact, in looking to read a range of people's reactions to it, I came across this blog post from Michael Ian Black that is a fair accounting of the elements in this film that don't work. (I'm not saying I agree with them all, but it's all fair criticism nonetheless.) My take on such criticisms is simple.

I don't care.

WALL-E, for my money, is very nearly the perfect film. It has great visual beauty (the scene with WALL-E and EVE in space is nothing less than a feast for the eyes). It has incredible heart. And it has -as the character of Holden McNeil says in Chasing Amy (another personal favorite)- "Something to say."

Would that more movies could boast of all that.