Monday, June 30, 2008

Robots in Love in the Time of Chlorella; "Wanted": A Heart and a Brain


directed by Andrew Stanton (“Finding Nemo”)
voice work by Ben Burtt, Elissa Knight, Jeff Garlin, others; funny cameo by Fred Willard

You don’t often hear the words “Disney” and “dystopia” in the same sentence. Not until now, that is. Leave it to Pixar to change that—and shortly after its return to the Disney fold, no less. Amusingly, and no doubt a bit harrowingly for the studio execs who negotiated the Pixar deal, “WALL-E” may be the most un-Disney movie to come out of the house that Mickey built. That’s not to say it’s lacking in cute protagonists, shiny visual treats, moral messages, or a happy ending: it has all these elements in spades. But what it does with them is very different from anything we’ve seen from the Magic Kingdom, or even, for that matter, from Pixar.

The year is 2700, and the film begins on an Earth that has turned into one vast, desolate landfill, so palpably evoked you can practically smell it. Flickering holograms, tattered banners, and other lingering signs reveal the decline of human society from dominance by a Wal-Mart-like corporate empire to uncontrollable profusion of consumer-generated trash, to the eventual escape of humankind to floating space-station communities that offer all the 24-7 pleasures of a cruise ship. The sole remaining Earthling is a rusty, scrappy (in all senses) robot called WALL-E—short for Waste Allocation Load Lifter, Earth class—who bears more than a passing resemblance to Johnny 5 from the “Short Circuit” movies and who dutifully labors, day in and day out, to compress the seemingly endless supply of garbage into compact little squares and stack them into towers that dwarf all other remains of humanity. WALL-E is also something of a pack rat, as well as a sentimentalist: from the detritus of a lost civilization, he plucks random objects (which furnish some of the film’s best, nonverbal jokes) and brings them home to decorate his robot pad, ranging from festoons of Christmas lights to kitchen utensils to cheap cigarette lighters and a Rubix cube. His most prized possession is a videotape of the movie musical “Hello, Dolly!”, which he watches over and over again, every night before going to “sleep.” His daily dose of singing, dancing Technicolored love seems to assuage the loneliness of his existence, otherwise relieved only by the companionship of a cockroach he’s adopted as a pet.

The roach proves as loyal as it is indestructible, but WALL-E plainly yearns for a deeper emotional connection. Enter EVE, a sleek, silver-white egg-shaped robot dispatched from the mother-cruise ship to Earth, on a targeted mission that does not concern or include WALL-E. (Hint: her name stands for Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator.) WALL-E, nonetheless, is instantly smitten and courts the exotic lady with indefatigable gallantry, despite the fact that her attention is clearly focused elsewhere. When EVE finally accomplishes her objective, shuts down and returns to the mother ship, WALL-E follows and finds a world run by robots catering to a population of soft, blobby, overpampered humans who have literally forgotten how to walk and how to see anything that isn’t on a screen before them. He doesn’t seem to notice the blobs, though, so fixated is he on getting EVE to pay attention to him. Fortunately, all ends well as he wins her love and, in the process, helps her save humanity.

The horrors that go unremarked by WALL-E are likely to register more strongly with the audience, though the implications may be lost on younger viewers. I’m not sure, in fact, that “WALL-E” is an ideal movie for very small children, notwithstanding the cuteness of the robots and the chase scenes late in the movie that culminate in a somewhat rote climax. After all, the first half is practically a study in solitude and largely one-sided attempts to communicate, unbroken by any dialogue other than robot beeps, while most of the humor in the second half is of a pointedly satirical nature that’s obviously tailored to appeal to liberal, ecologically minded adults. In fact, from its dark projections of the unchecked corporatization of human society to its skewering of modern man’s dependence on machines, the film’s vision of the future has all the bleakness of classic dystopian sci-fi flicks.

While that’s not a bad thing in itself, if “WALL-E" has a weakness, it's how heavily it borrows from these earlier films, including “Blade Runner,” “Idiocracy,” “Alien,” “The Matrix,” and, perhaps most directly and nakedly, “2001: A Space Odyssey.” There’s a fine line between paying tribute to and cribbing from a classic, and for the most part “WALL-E” stays on the right side of it. Still, one of the distinguishing features of Pixar productions up till now has been how self-contained they are as narratives and how little they depend on any specific cultural references outside the context and universe of the film at hand. It’s hard not to look back, for example, to last year’s “Ratatouille,” which was built on themes as ageless as any in “WALL-E,” yet managed to be a true original in almost every way. It’s also hard not to notice—particularly in light of Steve Jobs’s connection to Pixar—how comfortably the visual design of EVE's world could fit into an ad for the Apple Store. This super-subtle form of product suggestion, if not placement, casts the movie’s indictment of excessive consumerism in a somewhat ironic light.

That said, “WALL-E,” at its core is as much a love story as it is a cautionary parable of human development. And at its best, the romance has a charming Chaplin-esque quality that plays deftly between the comic and melancholy shades of WALL-E’s devotion. There are points, however, where it veers close to being overly cute. Romantic love has never been the central theme of a Pixar film before, so the tonal shakiness may just be a matter of adjusting to that framework. Or it may just be an effect of the contrast between the lilting sweetness of the courtship and the sobering, near-grotesque futuristic setting in which it takes place. Still, the film is organic enough that the happy ending feels emotionally earned at both the micro and macro levels of the plot, which is as much as anyone jaded by years of rom-com and sci-fi letdowns can reasonably expect. If I expect more from the Pixar wizards, it’s only because they’ve proven, time and again, that they can exceed my expectations.


Also saw:


directed by Timur Bekmambetov
starring James McAvoy, Angelina Jolie, Morgan Freeman

Was I just criticizing "WALL-E" for being derivative? Well, maybe I shouldn't have been. You want derivative, go see "Wanted." But don't take the kids to this one.

The director behind the Russian blockbusters "Night Watch" and "Day Watch" (haven't seen 'em, but I have a vague idea they were about "Underworld"- or "Blade"-style vampires) makes his American debut with this jacked-up action thriller starring current It Guy James McAvoy as the insignificant, put-upon Nobody who becomes Somebody and Angelina Jolie as a recruiter from a circle of top-secret, supercompetent assassins who take their hit orders from a textile loom (I kid you not) presided over by our favorite actor-cum-deity, Morgan Freeman. The result is flashy, splashy, shallow, hyperviolent, and dumber than a box of rocks.

I haven't read the graphic novel(s?) on which "Wanted" is based, so I have no idea whether anything was lost in translation. All I know is that as adapted by Bekmambetov et al., the narrative plays like a cross between the "Fight Club" fantasy of re-masculating the bloodless white-collar male through bone-crunching violence and "The Matrix" fantasy of eroticized guns and superhuman powers of mind-over-matter. The difference is "Fight Club" and "The Matrix" actually managed to get us invested in the characters to at least some degree. Here, McAvoy's unlikely hero is such a whiner that even though that's the point, and even though he ultimately turns into a surprisingly convincing badass, his search for an identity is so perfunctory it's hard for us to care what happens to him. Jolie, of course, is badass personified (though she could stand to gain a pound or twenty), with her coolly amused gaze and her catlike half-smile, and she does get a back story that makes her assassin somewhat more interesting and sympathetic than McAvoy's. Ultimately, though, both of these paper-thin characters take backseats to the real star of the show, which is the nonstop relay of special effects-enhanced action sequences, each one more preposterous than the last. It's entertaining, all right, but it's all empty cinematic calories. Eat your popcorn and have a nice day.



Blogger LVJeff said...

Hi Lylee. I'd have to disagree about the weakness of "cribbing" that you cite in this case. All movies borrow, and Pixar hasn't been immune to this (for instance, one of their best, The Incredibles, is chock full of references). And I don't think WALL-E crosses the line -- most of its homages are in film geek territory, and the uses of them in the first place were pretty deliberate, as evidenced in interviews with Andrew Stanton. And I think this is an extremely unique take on the dystopian sci-fi future. That they were able to apply to the story's surface a veneer of delight, over a tone that is otherwise quite bleak, is something of an amazing high-wire-act achievement to me.

8:18 PM  
Blogger lylee said...

Hey Jeff - mileage definitely varies on this, and I actually agree with you that "Wall-E" puts its film-geeky references to a deliberate (and generally worthy) purpose. It definitely doesn't even come close to the triviality of other animated movies that fall back on references not as homage but as cheap entertainment. It's just, at the end of the day, it got me thinking too much about other movies than about the one I was watching.

I do take your point about the film's skill in conveying the dystopic aspects without losing the basic warmth and glow we've come to expect from a Pixar movie. Though there are those who find that balancing act ultimately a bit of a copout.

I think that guy's analysis is a bit simplistic, mind you, but I do find certain points of consonance.

10:25 PM  
Blogger lylee said...

Ok, I'm not sure why that link didn't work, but here's the html address:,0,1537347.story

10:26 PM  
Blogger Tonio Kruger said...

Well, the end of WALL-E is a tad Panglossian--and no, it doesn't help to see WALL-E and EVE as the robotic equivalent of Candide and Cundegonde though I did think it was cute that WALL-E appeared to be pronouncing EVE's name in a Latin manner--but it's still a good movie.

It was much better than I expected, though I must admit that I liked the scenes with the robots a lot better than the scenes with the humans.

And the movie gets props for avoiding the most obvious gag one would expect in a movie which has a character named EVE.

I don't like what I have been hearing about Wanted though. Borrowing ideas is okay, but it generally helps if you do something imaginative with your borrowings. And anyway, I've already seen Fight Club...

6:24 PM  
Blogger lylee said...

I like the Candide comparison, except I really don't think the filmmakers meant "WALL-E" to be a satire. It's almost touching, their fallback on faith in the human spirit, and it doesn't feel disingenuous.

And yeah, don't waste your time on "Wanted." The longer time passes, the less substantial it becomes in my brain.

3:43 AM  

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