An animated film starring cute little robots ends up revealing a tremendous amount about the human condition. That's certainly the case in Wall-E (2008), an inspiring, visually impressive, and even emotionally affecting Pixar summer release.
Wall-E is set seven centuries in the future, on a brown, mostly-lifeless planet Earth that is overrun by mountains of...garbage.
Mankind has vacated his natural home world -- his birth-right -- for a sleek luxury love boat to the stars called Axiom. Aboard this technological marvel, human beings have evolved (or is it de-volved?) into obese, luxury-obsessed creatures. Axiom's passengers hover about endlessly on floating plush chairs while watching ubiquitous television screens. And they are constantly being served an array of fast-food in super-sized cups by subservient bots.
But meanwhile, back on lonely Earth, a utilitarian little robot called Wall-E toils away endlessly at his assigned task; crushing down man's endless trash into small cubes...and stacking those cubes into skyscraper-sized monuments to our species' wastefulness.
Wall-E goes about his duties with a dedicated sense of curiosity. Each object excavated in the refuse is an opportunity not for judgement but for learning; whether it be a fire extinguisher, a Twinkie (still not past its expiration date...), a rubik's cube, a cast-off diamond ring, or even an over-sized bra.
Wall-E's house (a truck bay) is a cluttered testament to 21st century man's disposable culture, a collection of all the cast-off oddities that have struck the inquisitive robot's fancy. On a jerry-rigged screen, Wall-E constantly plays an old movie musical...one in which a man and woman fall in love...and celebrate the romance by holding hands. Wall-E even learns the movie's dance moves, utilizing a garbage can lid as a top hat.
The movie musical has struck a powerful chord with Wall-E's psyche...er, circuit boards. Although he boasts a little insect as friend/pet, the big-eyed machine lacks real companionship. Then...one day -- after Wall-E discovers an honest-to-goodness green plant poking out of the strained soil -- a spaceship returns to Earth. A droid named EVE, one assigned to scour the surface for active vegetation, emerges.
This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship...
Can a trash-collecting robot and an elegant droid that is one-part-life-giving Egg and one-part soaring Angel ( colored in immaculate and symbolic white) discover true love together? Can they rescue the human race and the planet Earth? Well, you'll have to find out for yourself...
Suffice it to say that if you ever pondered the notion that the industrious Star Wars droid R2-D2 deserved his own heroic love story, this is likely the movie for you. Even that description doesn't do the film justice, however. This isn't just a modern-day variation on Heartbeeps (1981), it's something greater
I enjoyed Wall-E for many of its fine qualities. It is a beautifully-realized film in terms of design and animation. It's also extremely funny. But I enjoyed it the most as a film history lover, because in some important sense, it purposefully gazes back at cherished movie history as much as it gazes forward at the "distant future."
I'm not just talking about the significance of the movie musical, either.
in particular, the mostly silent Wall-E robot -- who doesn't speak much in the film, except in Ben Burtt's trademark beeps and whistles -- often comes across as a modern variation of the immortal Charlie Chaplin character, the Little Tramp.
The Tramp, as you may recall, was a solitary figure of great personal dignity...and also a trouble-prone klutz. The movie character became an icon of the Silent Film Age/Depression Era, and he appeared in such films as The Kid (1921), The Gold Rush, and Modern Times (1936).
In Modern Times -- a parable about industrialization -- the Tramp worked on an always-accelerating factory assembly line, serving as a cog in the machine. He went about his mindless work dutifully until driven nuts by the escalating pace. Then, by happenstance (he picked up a red flag...), he was mistaken as a communist protester of the very system that created the modern factory in the first place.
Wall-E's futuristic journey isn't entirely different. Once aboard the Axiom -- a ship run entirely by robots -- Wall-E is similarly caught in an inhuman assembly line of sorts, an endless convoy of robots going about their own urgent business. He is tagged not as a Communist protester, of course, but rather as a dangerous "rogue robot" who threatens the establishment. In both situations, the character (either the Tramp or Wall-E...) falls afoul of authority figures, gums up the works entirely, and even finds love: Wall-E with EVE, and the Tramp with the Gamine (Paulette Goddard).
More crucial than these surface similarities, however, are the thematic ones. Chaplin was a famous leftist, of course. And a hard truth about leftists (that most right-wingers don't understand...) is that they too love America and the American dream. They just tend to see it in different terms. Accordingly, Modern Times concerned the concept of a man, a worker, who saw his individuality, personality and destiny controlled and dominated by wealthy capitalists; ones who were primarily concerned with making money, not about assuring worker's dignity or individual rights.
Wall-E is a leftist fantasy too, be assured. And in a very timely, very valuable way. In the future portrayed here, big business has run amok in the form of an out-of-control, unregulated monopoly: the Big Box Store company called Buy-N-Large, which controls everything from banks to gas stations, to superstores, to shipping lanes, to outer space itself.
In this future, big business has merged completely with Big Government (and hey, that fits my happy movie buzz word of the week: fascism!) There is no longer even a President as such. Nope, the planet is ruled by BNL's Global CEO, played impeccably and slickly by the always-impressive Fred Willard.
Buy-N-Large -- which owns everything proceeds to destroy everything. Earth is left a trash heap, cast-aside like a used beer can because of Buy-N-Large's greed and -- by extension -- the luxury-minded shoppers who just wanted cheap prices and fast food. But cheap prices have a high cost, an axiom as true here as it is in life. This is where Wall-E actually takes the next step beyond Modern Times and the Little Tramp.
If we can't hope for big business and corporations to take care of people, how on Earth can we expect that they will take care of the planet? That's the question underlying the action here. By the way, all of this seems even more timely in December 08, as our country slips into recession because Big Business went unpoliced for so long; in Bush's words "got drunk."
Like Chaplin's Tramp, Wall-E goes through a lot of comic shtick and pratfalls during his misadventures. He gets propelled backwards accidentally when he activates a fire extinguisher. He single-handedly wrecks a robot repair shop when he mistakenly believes EVE is endangered. He crawls through a garbage chute. He gets electrocuted. Twice. He even runs into a beached-whale conspicuous consumer, knocking the fat man off his perch (and changing his life forever, actually...)
This is a role the Tramp always fulfilled too: he was the universe's Loki Mechanism, a figure of (mostly-unintentional) mischief who, with a single act, could overturn a flawed establishment. Even Wall-E's final plot point, an importantly-placed kiss, seems to echo some critical aspect of Chaplin's famous film work, namely The Gold Rush's finale (at least before the 1942 re-release...).
Beyond presenting Wall-E as a tramp-like character, a sensitive traveler prone to trouble and being in the wrong place at the wrong time, this stellar Pixar film features dozens of references not merely to film history, but all of man's "kinder and gentler" past.
There's at least one allusion to Alien (1979); another to 2001: A Space Odyssey the latter in a snippet of The Blue Danube. I also caught glimpses of Sputnik and Rubik's Cube. And best of all, there's a tender moment that makes fine use of Louis Armstrong singing La Vie en Rose
The first Great Depression had The Tramp. As we slide towards another, we have Wall-E. I'm okay with that, in part because this is an update of the character with just as much heart and brains.
Ultimately, what Wall-E skillfully reminds us as we go forward is that this: there's a difference between "surviving" and "living." And that even when the task ahead is difficult, the hard work is made bearable by the fact that we can always hold hands with somebody we love.
But first we have to get out of the plush chairs, turn off the TV, exercise...and stop shopping at Wal-Mart. It's funny, but the final line of the vile Wanted (2008) desperately sought to kick us all out of our complacency. Yet that film was so mean, so ugly, so utterly inhuman, mechanical and repugnant that it was impossible to buy into that message.
By contrast, Wall-E -- a movie starring robots -- makes a similar point, but does so with a surfeit of humor, emotion and heart.
Send in the machines...