After seeing WALL-E, I had one burning question inside me: how could WALL-E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class), a robot, experience human emotions? In the film, the little guy fears explosions, falls in love with another robot, and emulates human behavior he sees in musicals like Hello, Dolly. Was he programmed this way? Are feelings built into his circuits and chips? Even if he could fall in love, how does WALL-E know EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator), the other major robot in the movie, is female? Would a male counterpart have an extra attachment somewhere?
By Matthew Huntley
July 7, 2008
These are questions I have, yes, but they're ultimately beside the point in a film this grand, beautiful and risky. My girlfriend told me to simply use my imagination, which is what I did. When we first meet WALL-E, we accept the idea enough time has passed in his lifetime so he's able to feel, that he's somehow "evolved" or been upgraded himself. He's developed a personality and grown curious about things he doesn't understand; he's also befriended a resilient cockroach. Once we accept these criteria, we can't help but sit back with admiration and wonder.
It's 2815, centuries after mankind has abandoned the planet because of excessive pollution. Humans now sit comfortably aboard a luxury spacecraft called the Axiom, sponsored by the only remaining corporation and governing body, Buy 'n Large. The sole "living" thing on Earth is WALL-E, the last of a robot unit assigned to dispose of the world's garbage.
The film's first big risk is the way it paints Earth as a bleak, dusty, brown, and all-around ugly place (artistically speaking, though, it's quite beautiful). The concept of making our planet look desolate and dismal is nothing new for futuristic sci-fi (see Mad Max and Blade Runner), but it is for family films, especially the always bright, cheerful and colorful Pixar movies. It says something when the filmmakers are willing to be bold and daring in order to entertain as well as educate us. With WALL-E, children and adults will be taught a valuable lesson on the destructive forces of consumerism, gluttony and waste, even if we hear this message a lot lately.
One of its other risks is one you already know from the trailers: WALL-E doesn't talk, or at least his verbal communication is limited. The only words he knows are his own name and "EVE." Industry analysts suspected such a move could limit the film's box office potential, but I think they underestimate viewers' desire for intelligent storytelling. Not all audiences need everything spelled out for them, and that's something the Pixar folks know. Through WALL-E's behavior, motions and body language, we know exactly what he's thinking and feeling and nothing gets lost, although I'm still not sure what mechanical parts or circuits cause him to shake when he gets scared.
EVE comes to Earth looking for signs of sustainable life. At first, she's threatened by WALL-E but comes to trust him. He shows her his collection of spare parts, light bulbs and a Rubik's Cube. When WALL-E shows her a plant he found, EVE places it inside herself and spontaneously shuts down. While dormant, WALL-E cares for her, takes her for walks and protects her, sometimes at his own expense. After a while, I forgot these two machines were, well, machines and just smiled at them. It's cute the way WALL-E pulls her along with Christmas lights, covers her during a rain storm and holds her hand during the sunset. Their romance is surprisingly touching.
A spacecraft eventually comes to pick EVE up and WALL-E stows away onto the Axiom, where the movie takes its third big risk. Humans have become a bunchy of lazy, overweight slobs, brainwashed by comfort, lounging and automation. Each human has a round figure and appears tired, apathetic and uninspired, with all their emotions repressed. They no longer walk, run, swim or dress themselves, having practically descended into a period of de-evolution. This is all meant to remind us of the dangers of letting ourselves be overridden by products and comfort while shutting out nature and exercise.
The second half of the film aboard the Axiom revolves around WALL-E attempting to rescue EVE as she maintains her directive and delivers the plant to the Axiom's captain (Jeff Garlin), who gets instructions from Buy 'n Large's former CEO (Fred Willard) to insert the plant into an Axiom chamber, upon which an automated process will take place and the human race will return to Earth. But another robot aboard the ship has been programmed to prevent this from happening for reasons I won't reveal.
Compared to other Pixar movies, WALL-E is by far the most interesting and challenging. It's not the most entertaining per se (that credit goes to Toy Story 2 and Ratatouille), but it takes bigger risks with its methods. The film isn't shy and contains a dark, cynical and harsh tone, made watchable for kids by its sweet, likable hero. Unlike other Pixar movies, it's not full of humor, slapstick and traditional feel-good emotion. It lacks the hearts of, say, Finding Nemo and The Incredibles, but, in a way, I admire it more for that reason. Why should the idea of devastating our planet be happy and cuddly? WALL-E doesn't make us feel the way we want and asks us to face difficult realities. As much as we may not want to admit it, it's going to take the human race a long time to undo what we're doing to ourselves and our planet. At least WALL-E offers hope we'll be able to overcome it...eventually.
I've mentioned the film takes risks, but these would be for naught if the filmmakers didn't capitalize on them with an engaging story, and director Andrew Stanton finds a way to relay a valuable message to viewers without drifting into cartoonish sentimentality. Yes, we have heard the same message before, but it's never been delivered this way. Given Pixar's track record, I almost thought it would go the entire distance and sacrifice the typical happy ending. Exactly how it ends I will not say, but it's good despite playing it safe.
WALL-E is a film I expect to love and admire more with each viewing. Pixar goes beyond their bright, zany and enormously entertaining family pictures and takes one step closer towards higher art. They experiment with the family genre and successfully create an experience that may not be as heavy on traditional emotion and comedy, but it gives us something more thoughtful and hard-hitting, not to mention something visually stunning.