Notes on a Small Robot

Things have been far too slow on here as of late, largely due to a painful two-week lull where I was devoid of internet access (ironic seeing as dependence on technology is a major theme of the forthcoming blog entry). Since then, the time to review Wall·E has come and gone, so rather than tiptoe around plot points and hint at what to look for, I have instead decided to opt for a more discursive approach, which will observe the film under the assumption that the reader has either seen it, has elected to not or never see it, or feels that what merits the film will have for them cannot be damaged by certain revelations or “spoilers” found within.

Wall·E was always going to be special. Pixar have so far had one of the greatest strings of successes in animation history; nay, in cinematic history. There have been blips of course. Cars is somewhat hackneyed and becomes utterly confusing when analysed beyond being a simple kids film (just how did that world evolve?). The Incredibles is, alas, not to everyone’s liking, and A Bug’s Life and Monsters, Inc. suffer moments of weakness. But from the moment Wall·E first appeared in trailers a year ago he captured instantly a piece of the magic that has made Pixar the rightful successor to Disney’s practically vacant throne.

His eyes of course instantly remind audiences of Lenny the clockwork binoculars in Toy Story. He also recalls E.T., particularly with his rising neck, brownish colouring, voice and curious nature. There is even a generous sprinkling of Johnny 5 in the mix. The loneliness and humour portrayed in trailers made for adorable Pixar shorts of their very own, so the fact that this was to be a full-length feature, after the witty and ambitious Ratatouille, was a favourable sign for Pixar and audiences alike.

So much has already been said about Wall·E and its messages, with political and social backlashes and support seen from all sides. There are few punches pulled, as was the case with Cars, but the message being presented here is far greater than the disappearance of small town America. In Wall·E, by 2815 America, and the whole world, has become a dusty trash pile representing a long since forgotten human presence. Skyscraper-filled skylines (made up of both actual skyscrapers and monolithic slabs of compressed garbage) echo our modern cities, while the hazy pollution is all too familiar from previews of Beijing’s pre-Olympic cleanups.

Wall·E is the typical last man on Earth, barring the fact he is a robot. He plays with the objects he finds, with the emptiness around him, and befriends an unlikely companion in a cockroach. By observing the remains of human society (summarised by segments of the 1969 musical Hello, Dolly!) he becomes considerably more human than the humans he will later encounter. Ironically, while we can see the worst of ourselves reflected in the evolved abominations aboard the Axiom cruise spaceship, the best of humanity is summed up in Wall·E, the little robot that could.

Buy n Large, the hyper-Wal-Mart monstrosity responsible for the current state of affairs in Wall·E, is about as unsubtle a satirical creation as can be. The company owns everything from banks to shops, giving it complete control of all financial and capital movements. Its president, played by Fred Willard in live-action video footage, addresses customers from a White House press room look-alike podium, implying that Buy n Large literally ran the world, and not just from behind the scenes. Indeed Willard is an odd casting choice, so often playing the buffoon, that parallels are instantly drawn to the current US president; both joke about their apparent cluelessness, both are aware of corporate agendas beyond the greater good. Even a scene where Willard wears a gas mask on his chest recalls George W Bush’s photo op in full fighter pilot regalia.

One could go on. Aboard the Axiom the people are so pandered to by Buy n Large, who wish only to satisfy their customers fully to ensure that they remain content, that they have evolved into nightmarish visions of white middle-class Americans. Quite literally everything is controlled by the market, which is solely Buy n Large. Indeed, when the final credits have rolled after the film, the Buy n Large logo flashes one last time, as if to imply that the company is so all-encompassing that it has somehow retroactively co-financed this film!

So that’s enough about the worst of humanity. Let’s get back to Wall·E, and also on to EVE. EVE’s introduction, heralded by a cooing “ooooh” from Wall·E, is truly when the film begins. In appearance half iPod, half swaddled baby Jesus, the life-detecting robot (and arsenal of hugely destructive capability) is a complete mismatch for the living robot, with a girly laugh the only indicator of the humanity she will come to possess. She is an Asimovian robot; free to do whatever she wills until a rule that must be obeyed (referred to repeatedly as her “directive”) rebukes her freedom.

Wall·E, through his isolation, has evolved beyond these I, Robot limitations, and thus while rusty and broken, he is indeed the most advanced machine of all. When EVE temporarily shuts down, Wall·E acts not like a loyal dog, but like a loving human to a bedridden partner. He cares for her through wind and rain and sandstorm (her egg-like shape adds an extra natural aspect to his protective behaviour). Arguably his attempts to have her address his loneliness through handholding verge on cybernetic necrophilia, but we can chalk it up largely to his rather childlike and human misunderstanding of the situation.

In one of the film’s most touching sequences EVE bares witness through security footage to the kindness Wall·E showed her during her hibernation, and the human feelings she experiences allow her to overcome the confines of her robotic existence. She breaks the directive that is her sole purpose because she has found a greater good in Wall·E. The message is simple, but it is sweet and delivered note perfect.

Wall·E’s humanity is as contagious as a virus. It’s a wonderful life he ends up leading, as like George Bailey before him, the most minor of events make the lives of others better. M-O, a teeny robot with OCD, is forced to stray from his set path by Wall·E’s bio-hazardous presence, and discovers adventure and friendship on the way. John and Mary (voiced respectively by Pixar must-have John Ratzenberger and King of the Hill’s Kathy Najimy) are two generically named human blimps aboard the Axiom whom contact with Wall·E frees them the Matrix-like hold of Buy n Large. The ship’s captain (Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Jeff Garlin) discovers the importance of learning, humanity and taking action after being inspired by one brief encounter. The idea is of course that what makes us human cannot be undone even if it is buried behind layers and layers of fat and stupidity, it just takes the right little something to reignite the spark.

What’s amazing about Wall·E is just how dystopian its clean white future is. The grungy mess on Earth is nowhere near as hellish as the beautiful decks of the Axiom. At least on Earth man, robot and roach can be free. The customers of Buy n Large on board the Axiom are slaves of the worst kind. They are slaves to their bodies, which can barely move for them given their size, shape and weakened states. They are also slaves to the system; their tastes and styles are selected for them. By the look of surprise on their faces when John and Mary touch hands, we can assume human contact is utterly new to them, implying that the babies we have seen were hardly produced by coitus (not something that a children’s film will dwell on of course, but subtly implied). Indeed, the children are hooked to the corporate Matrix from birth and even then receive no human contact, somewhat of a throwaway gag in the film (“A is for Axiom, B is for Buy n Large…”), but truly disturbing when considered in depth. Unlike the world of The Matrix, where being in the Matrix is arguably favourable to living in a sewer and attending horrible raves, there is no evident pleasure to be found in the lives of the Axiom’s cruise passengers. John and Mary on the other hand, unhooked, can enjoy the stars, the pool, and life off the lighted track.

Portends to classic sci-fi don’t end there, there are also numerous references to 2001: A Space Odyssey, most notably in the ship’s malfunctioning-due-to-clashing-orders auto-pilot, Auto, who as a red dot in a ship’s wheel is quite literally a maritime HAL-9000 (one is left wondering how much easier Dave Bowman’s last day might have been had HAL simply had an AUTO/MANUAL switch!). Sigourney Weaver voices the ship’s main computer, which might as well be called MOTHER given how it dotes on the captain. One could even question if the fact that Wall·E feeds his pet cockroach on cream-filled pastries is in reference to a gag in TV’s Family Guy that the only things that can survive a nuclear holocaust are cockroaches and Twinkies.

Not all of Wall·E is as faultless as I may be implying, and to be honest I am rather looking at what should be taken from the film than putting forth reasons that demand it be adored. The misfit band of broken robots that Wall·E befriends for example is a little too in-your-face nice. The message that it is ok to be different is already evident without a robot that puts make-up on everything and a robot umbrella that can’t stay closed – although admittedly the sequence where a broken massage robot goes twenty-ninth century on the asses of countless robot guards rouses one of the film’s greatest belly laughs.

The film’s final return to Earth does leave us wondering whether the cycle of history will repeat itself. Can these jelly-filled excuses for humans ever hope to bring Earth back to its former glory, even after discovering the joys of individuality and working for oneself? Surely they’re screwed, or will the robots help them out? The idea of history repeating itself is suggested (although this negative spin is perhaps unintended) in the gorgeous closing credit sequence, where future history is played out in the styles of our own history of art, from hieroglyphs to a stunning Monet/van Gogh fusion of Wall·E and EVE in a field. These are followed by an 8-bit computer graphics retread of the entire film around the scrolling credits (in which, perhaps intentionally, Wall·E looks all too like the Atari envisaging of E.T.).

Worth mentioning is the usage of live-action footage to represent the humans that were circa 2105. While the imagery is effective and clever, one does get the idea that Pixar may finally be admitting that they do not have faith in their rendering of human beings. Whatever the case may be, they have escaped persecution this time around, but it will be worth seeing how humans appear in their future films. If they are to take Disney’s crown for good, their humans must appear as charming as those in Disney’s animations.

Morally you can’t argue much with a film this sweet. Humanity triumphs, albeit emerging from an unlikely source. Pollution is bad, we know this. Corporations should be kept out of politics and out of our private lives (I’m talking to you, Google!). Sacrifice is a necessity. The heartbreaking finale, where Wall·E reverts to a mechanoid state with no emotions or personality spells it out. Wonderfully, in a classic fairytale twist, it is a kiss from the heroine that wakes him from his death-like slumber. This touching gender role reversal is a fitting ending to a film that hits so many of the right buttons from the get go, in its attention to detail and in its genuine sense of rightfulness and humanity.

Wall·E is a robot that’s built to last, and he will continue to touch and entertain audiences well into the future.

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2 Comments

Filed under Film

2 responses to “Notes on a Small Robot

  1. Nice review 🙂

    It was a truly adorable film; I loved it. A few parents have mentioned that it was bit slow-moving for kids, and that, being essentially a love story, a good bit of it went over their heads – they were either bored and uninterested, or completely enraptured with the bleeps and beeps of the robots.

  2. Really enjoyed that Dave! I think what I enjoyed most in some ways was a robot doing slapstick at the start of the film, the spork being a particularly wonderful moment!

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