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Sunday 29 June 2008

"Aye, Robot:
A Review of Wall·E"

by Gary Westfahl

Directed by Andrew Stanton

Written by Andrew Stanton (screenplay) and Jim Capobianco (titles)

Starring Fred Willard and the voices of Ben Burtt, Elissa Knight, Jeff Garlin, John Ratzenberger, Kathy Najimy, and Sigourney Weaver

Official site: WALL-E

In a way, it constitutes a sad commentary on contemporary filmmaking to report that one of the best science fiction films I've seen in years is a G-rated animated cartoon, but that strangely is the case; for, despite some predictable concessions to the very youngest of filmgoers, Wall·E otherwise offers a carefully developed future history as its background, an involving, well-constructed story, and disturbing and thought-provoking messages. Unlike pyrotechnic travesties purportedly aimed at adults such as War of the Worlds (2005) [review] or I Am Legend (2007) [review], here is a film which does everything that superior science fiction is supposed to be doing.

So, according to director-screenwriter Andrew Stanton, this is the future which humanity can look forward to: by the year 2105, all of the planet Earth is essentially governed by a massive corporation, Buy N Large, which apparently controls all stores, banks, and industries (as indicated throughout the film by its ubiquitous logo), and is dedicated to making profits by urging people to consume as much as they possibly can. People apparently have heeded Buy N Large's advice, conveyed by a novelty item which survives the impending collapse of civilization — a mounted fish that sings Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry, Be Happy" — but the unhappy result of their worry-free happiness is a world increasingly filled with garbage and environmentally degraded to the point where the atmosphere is virtually unbreathable and the soil can no longer support plant life. As explained in a taped message from the blatantly insincere president of Buy N Large, Shelby Forthright (a brilliantly cast Fred Willard), the decision was then made to have all humans temporarily abandon Earth in order to cruise through space until evidence emerges that plants can again survive on its surface; but living up to his name, he eventually concedes forthrightly in another taped message that the damage done by his company's activities was so devastatingly severe as to render Earth more or less permanently uninhabitable.

Thus, as the film opens, sometime in the late twentieth-eighth century, the only apparent residents of a trashed-out New York City are a trash-compacting robot of the brand name Wall·E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter, Earth Class), and his inevitable companion (both voiced by Ben Burtt), the one creature we have always known would survive all imaginable environmental catastrophes, a cockroach named Hal (who is improbably intelligent and virtually invulnerable, though this might be explained as a mutation triggered by the changed circumstances). Wall·E fulfills his destiny by obsessively crushing all the trash around him into cubes which he then assembles into skyscrapers, haunting mockeries of the decaying structures around him, but he has also developed, as science fiction robots often do, his own quirky personality, as he collects and saves various remnants of human civilization while entertaining himself with a videotape of the Hollywood musical Hello, Dolly (1969) (chosen by filmmakers from many possibilities perhaps because it takes place in New York City, because it involves matchmaking, and/or simply because "Dolly" rhymes with "Wall·E"). I was reminded of another science fiction story about a robot who carries on in the company of animals after all humans have left the Earth, Clifford D. Simak's City (1952), and some of the film's early scenes do achieve a sort of Simakian poignancy, though driven by nostalgia for human technology instead of nostalgia for the simple virtues of country life: Wall·E puzzledly examining a Rubik's Cube; Wall·E picking up a small case with a jeweled ring and throwing away the ring while saving the case as one of his treasures; Wall·E rocking himself to sleep in his movable bins of collectibles; Wall·E unwrapping a Twinkie-like pastry, still kept fresh by preservatives after all these centuries, so that Hal can happily bury himself in its inner frosting. It is a tribute to Pixar's now-complete mastery of computer animation that Wall·E and Hal out-act, and inspire a stronger emotional response than, Will Smith and his dog in the somewhat similar opening scenes of I Am Legend. And Stanton takes pains to logically explain his robot's unusually long survival: Wall·E periodically deploys solar panels to keep recharging his batteries, and his accumulated belongings include a supply of spare parts that he expertly uses to repair himself.

Of course, just as convention demanded that Smith's Last Man on Earth would encounter a beautiful woman, this Last Male Robot on Earth soon meets up with a beautiful female robot, an Extraterrestrial Vegetative Evaluator naturally called Eve (voiced by Elissa Knight), but their embryonic romance ends when Wall·E gives her a tiny plant, precisely what she was created to find, inspiring her to seize the plant and become inert until she can be retrieved by the spaceship that first brought her to Earth. Clinging to the ship as it blasts off and flies through the ring of debris that now encircles the Earth, Wall·E experiences a breathtaking cosmic voyage to the immense space cruiser Axiom, where the film shifts from an elegiac mood to stinging satire.

For once Wall·E and Eve are onboard the Axiom, they can finally observe the surviving members of the human race, who — pampered and overfed for centuries by Buy N Large's innumerable and attentive robots — have become enormously fat and incapable of walking; instead, they endlessly float around in cushioned chairs, constantly eating and watching individualized images projected in front of their faces. Their food is even liquefied, undoubtedly so that they can avoid even the minimal labor of chewing. Now, fears that technological advances might make people weak and immobile are hardly new — consider, as one example, David H. Keller's "The Revolt of the Pedestrians" (1928) — and other science fiction stories like Jack Vance's "Abercrombie Station" (1952) and Fritz Leiber's A Specter Is Haunting Texas (1968) have specifically predicted that humans living in space might become enormously fat. Still, particularly and visually emphasizing the dangers of inactivity and over-consumption strikes me as a courageous gesture in a film, since movie theatres, after all, are businesses that survive by encouraging people to do nothing but sit in comfortable chairs and eat lots of expensive, unhealthy food. Frankly, people of certain dimensions are going to feel pretty uncomfortable watching these scenes with their hands in huge tubs of buttery popcorn; and while Wall·E is a film that will surely attract a number of repeat customers, they may be spending much less at the concession stands the second time around.

In all of this, there is another familiar science fiction theme: the dangers of allowing robots designed to be helpful to get out of hand and become harmful to their creators. It is a message that films have developed both brilliantly (2001: A Space Odyssey [1968]) [review] and ineptly (I, Robot [2004]) [review]. And, without getting too involved in the details of the plot, it will not be giving very much away to say that the people on board the Axiom, as one effect of Wall·E and Eve's onboard adventures, awaken from their stupors and begin striving to regain control over their own lives. There is one telling connection to a distinguished predecessor: when the ship's captain (voiced by Jeff Garlin), battling against his overbearing Autopilot, musters the energy to become the first human in centuries to actually walk across a room, the familiar music in the background is Richard Strauss's Also Sprach Zarathustra (1896); like the ancient hominids of 2001, accompanied by the same fanfare, the captain is becoming a true human being.

Now, what I have so far said about Wall·E, I believe, falls into the category of what any attentive viewer might draw from the film. But I have enormous respect for Andrew Stanton and the other people involved in making this film, and believe they are capable of the sort of subtlety rarely seen in contemporary filmmaking. So, allow me to turn to what I regard as the really unsettling aspects of this story.

The first involves what is, at first glance, the charming coda to the film. The unsurprisingly happy ending (a "spoiler," if one insists upon the term) has unfolded: Wall·E and Eve are together again, and the now-determined people from the Axiom have returned to Earth, ready to roll up their sleeves and undo all the damage done by their ancestors. As the credits begin, the sophisticated computer animation of the film is suddenly replaced by crude drawings explicitly recalling Egyptian hieroglyphics; a style of art we associate with depictions of the rise of human civilization is now being used to show the rebirth of civilization. And so the images unfold: a robot making a fire for the humans; a robot digging a well to provide people with fresh water; a robot helping a farmer plant his seeds; a robot assisting a fisherman casting his net; a robot joining humans to construct a building... But wait a minute; I thought the whole point of the film was that humans had finally resolved to stop letting robots do all the work for them and instead were going to start doing all of their work by themselves. One might argue the filmmakers' idea was to show that, instead of humans bossing around robots or robots bossing around people, our blissful future would have humans and robots working together as equals. But I see humans once again making the mistake of letting their own advanced technology play too much of a role in their lives, setting themselves up for a catastrophic replay of the original events of the film: robotic overprotection, human over-consumption, and eventual environmental overkill. Perhaps, then, what humans did to themselves in the twenty-second century was not an unfortunate aberration, but an unavoidable effect of our basic nature, as our aptitude for scientific innovation will inexorably lead to self-inflicted disaster. If this seems a bit far-fetched, consider the film's final sequence — that is, after the voluminous credits are completed, the very last thing one sees before the blue screen announcing the film's official rating. It is the logo of Buy N Large, accompanied by a snippet from its theme song. In other words, while the story first appeared to end with the defeat of Buy N Large, that final image suggests that Buy N Large, and the odious consequences of its philosophy, will remain a powerful force in human lives.

The film also offers, I propose, a heretical take on one of the central tenets of science fiction: namely, the virtues of human space travel. Back in the 1970s, when Gerard O'Neill and his followers were vigorously promoting the concept of enormous space habitats as future homes for humanity, their reasoning was that life on a planetary surface was actually difficult and unpleasant, while life in outer space would be idyllic — the argument presented, for example, in George Zebrowski's Macrolife (1979). And an early scene in Wall·E, a filmed commercial for the Axiom cruiseship showing thin, athletic people thoroughly enjoying its facilities, essentially makes the same argument, with pitchman Forthright describing outer space as "the Final Fun-Tier!" Yet at the time of the film, we see that life in space has proven instead to be stultifying and unhealthy, and the people on board the Axiom are all sick and tired of it. They long to return to Earth in order to spend their lives engaged in activities like farming, fishing, and taking long walks through the forest. Science fiction has frequently stressed that humans need to escape from the prison of Earth and seek true freedom in outer space; this is a film about humans who need to escape from the prison of space to seek true freedom on the planet Earth.  

And, if humans are not really suited for life in space, then who is? The film's clear answer: robots. To discuss this point, I must distress a few readers by not only failing to connect this film to such obvious predecessors as Short Circuit (1986) and Robots (2005) but also by mentioning a film that was made almost sixty years ago and suggesting (gasp!) that such an antique might actually have some relevance to a film made in 2008, but a few scenes in Wall·E represent, almost inarguably, a homage to Destination Moon (1950). In that pioneering film's most striking sequence, astronauts flying to the Moon venture out on to the outer surface of their spaceship to gaze in awe at the vastness of space, and when one of them begins to dangerously drift away from the ship, a crewmate ingeniously employs an oxygen tank to maneuver his way through space to effect a rescue. Here, in the first of its two scenes occurring in the vacuum of space, it is Wall·E who stands on the outer surface of a spaceship to look out at the universe's wonders, and later, when Wall·E is adrift in the void, he uses an old-fashioned fire extinguisher, incongruously installed in one of the Axiom's escape pods, to guide himself through space, exactly like the astronaut of Desination Moon.  

In watching animated robots re-enact the actions of human actors purportedly in space, one realizes that the robots are doing it much better — and not simply because of the marvels of computer animation. That is, with no need to wear a protective spacesuit, Wall·E can experience space in ways unavailable to humans; in two evocative scenes, he comes extremely close to the Sun in order to recharge his batteries with unusual effectiveness, and he dips his fingers into the stuff of Saturn's rings and causes a beautiful swirl of sparkling matter to appear. Later, unencumbered by clumsy spacesuits, Wall·E and Eve can rapturously soar around each other in space with dizzying speed and grace. One recurring motif of this film is dancing: at one time during their first, clumsy courtship, Wall·E tries to teach Eve to dance like the people in Hello, Dolly, and a desire to dance in the manner of ancient humans shown in computer images is one factor motivating the ship's captain to revolt against his robot master. But the dazzling pirouettes of Wall·E and Eve in space constitute a form of dancing obviously beyond the abilities of any human performers. And even within the spaceship, one is struck by the way that the people consistently seem awkward and constrained, while the robots freely dart about with artful abandon; thus, when Wall·E is reluctant to board the escape pod to return to Earth alone, we are invited to assume it is because he wishes to stay with Eve, but he may also be reflecting a realization that life in space is more enjoyable for a robot than life on Earth. Indeed, looking for an appealing role model, Wall·E may have considered his cousins on board the Axiom, the identically proportioned but enormous trash-compactors labeled Wall·A (presumably, Waste Allocation Load Lifter, Axiom Class), visible proof that robots can thrive in the vacuum and weightlessness of space.

Perhaps, then, the film should have ended a bit differently, with the humans, now re-established on Earth, waving goodbye as Wall·E, Eve, and the other robots soar away in the Axiom to seek their proper destiny in outer space. This would naturally tie in with common arguments that, at least in light of current technological limitations, robotic probes represent a better way to explore space than human astronauts, not to mention more expansive visions of self-replicating von Neumann machines as the proper way to conquer the universe. Such a resolution might also have better resolved the central paradox that underlies this film. On the one hand, most of the film's humor and charm stems from having Wall·E and the other robots act, and seemingly think, just like human beings: recall Wall·E teaching his fellow robots how to hold hands and wave greetings, the way he is smitten with the lovely Eve and awkwardly contrives to sit closer to her, their pleasure in popping bubbles of protective plastic, Wall·E holding an umbrella to unnecessarily protect Eve from the rain, and so on. It is appealing to imagine that humans might be able to create beings in their own image who would also, over time, learn to behave just like people. On the other hand, the film makes it clear that Wall·E is intrinsically inhuman: he is, after all, almost seven hundred years old when the film begins, a being who is virtually immortal and invulnerable and capable of feats beyond human abilities; and his more powerful paramour Eve represents the new, improved version of robotic life. Could such essentially alien beings really bond with, and collectively craft a utopian civilization with, such frail and transient creatures as humans, as the film's closing images wish to suggest? Or would efforts to achieve such harmony, as already suggested, end up being bad for both humans and their creations? Consider the works of the writer who worked harder than anybody else to imagine ways to craft robots that would unproblematically serve the interests of humanity: Isaac Asimov. When he returned to his robot saga in the 1980s, he envisioned benevolent advanced robots resolving that it would be best for everyone involved if humans lived their lives without robots around. The need for robots and humans to live separate lives is also one conclusion of Simak's "Epilog" (1976), the bittersweet coda he added to his City. This film's ameliorative ending may be artful, but it is possible that even the filmmakers themselves did not regard it as entirely persuasive. (In particular, the fact that they chose to sketch the scenes of this harmonious future, instead of fully animating them, might suggest a certain lack of conviction on their part.)

Still, even if these thoughts are dismissed as egregious over-analysis of a film that functions perfectly well as simple, delightful entertainment for small children, Stanton and his colleagues may be forced to explore such questions when the overwhelming success of Wall·E engenders an irresistible demand for a sequel. They will essentially face two basic options: first, to keep Wall·E, Eve, and the other robots in the company of friendly humans like the captain and John and Mary, the corpulent couple (voiced by the corpulent John Ratzenberger and Kathy Najimy) who fall in love, as they collectively confront some contrived crisis on Earth; and second, to send the robots off by themselves to interact in space with other surviving humans, alien creatures, and/or alien robots. It will be interesting to see what they decide to do, which makes Wall·E a distinctive science fiction film in another way: a rare case in which one eagerly anticipates, instead of dreading, its inevitable sequel.

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