WALL-E and the critical hyping of two robots in love
How could any film live up to such gushing praise? Writing for The New York Times, A. O. Scott proclaims WALL-E “a cinematic poem of . . . wit and beauty.” Kenneth Turan, of the LA Times, writes “Daring and traditional, groundbreaking and familiar, apocalyptic and sentimental, Wall-E gains strength from embracing contradictions that would destroy other films.” Roger Ebert weighs in with “WALL•E succeeds at being three things at once: an enthralling animated film, a visual wonderment and a decent science-fiction story.” I fully agree with the praise for the top-notch animation of the Pixar release, but I couldn’t help feeling all the glorification was overblown, in part due to the Disney cutesiness of WALL-E’s lovelorn characterization. Also the film’s “revelatory” vision of the future struck me as dated. Lastly, as family entertainment, WALL-E can’t help but whitewash its darker implications.
By now, most people probably know of the premise of WALL-E, how a cute little mobile trash compactor of the future hopelessly sorts garbage on a planet earth long since humans abandoned it as a big junk heap. Since earth now largely seems bereft of plant life, WALL-E builds tall mountains of compacted trash when he isn’t collecting random human artifacts out of the detritus like a bra, or a rubik’s cube to amuse him back in his lonely truck. Not just any robot, WALL-E (which stands for Waste Allocation Load Lifter, Earth-Class) has developed enough personality to pine after some companionship. So he watches a videotape of “Hello, Dolly” in his truck at night, and practices his dance moves using a hubcap as a hat.
Fortunately for him, a space ship drops off an egg-like robot named EVE (Extra-Terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator) so that WALL-E can have an object for his emotions. Like many women, EVE is cold and given to vaporizing things that she doesn’t understand, but she does find an important rare plant which she places inside of herself for safekeeping. Then she goes into hibernation mode as she waits for the mother ship to come take her away. Curiously, WALL-E gets to express his love for EVE most when she’s in this robotic comatose state. He takes her off to watch polluted sunsets and such, and I couldn’t help but be reminded of Lars and the Real Girl, given the strangeness of WALL-E’s infatuation with an inanimate egg. For much of the film, in his Beatles-like way, he just wants to hold hands. Isn’t that sweet?
Then, the space ship returns and takes them both to a mother ship called Axiom, and the plot shifts towards a 2001 struggle-against-the-evil machine narrative. The ship’s captain, WALL-E, and EVE work to rouse the fat, slothful, media-saturated humans into returning to earth. There’s a HAL figure of sorts, a spider-like robot who resists the idea, and in case we decry the theft from Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, the filmmakers play music from 2001 to acknowledge the source.
Aside from the schmaltziness of WALL-E’s needy-geek romanticism, the film also has problems with the accuracy of its vision of the future. WALL-E has been in production now for over fifteen years, so some of the film’s environmental concerns seem dated. Humans are no doubt capable of trashing Earth, but to leave it bereft of all plant-life seems unlikely. Alan Weisman's recent nonfiction work World Without Us demonstrates how nature would quickly take over if humans were to suddenly vanish off the face of the planet. Certainly, we are likely to be heading towards a population overshoot and collapse involving a major drop in the number of people, but I doubt that nature would be so easily vanquished.
By the time the movie's plot shifts to the space ship Axiom, I was reminded of multiple science fiction films including Soylent Green, when the captain discovers the joys of nature on his telescreen, Bruce Dern’s Silent Running, wherein the earth becomes a playground that has no need of nature, and of course 2001. But all of these films have much darker visions of the future than WALL-E proposes. 2001 still has relevance because it emphasizes the coldness and indifference of space, our inability to fully imagine the future, and the capacity of technology to turn against humans. In contrast, WALL-E makes space a much more comfortable, family-friendly place, more an arena for balletic dancing between WALL-E and EVE than a vacuum where humans suffocate and freeze to death. Even as various robots on Axiom turn against our heroes, a bunch of defective robots came to their assistance. I guess that we could associate them similar creations in the Star Wars franchise, but they mostly reminded me of the island of the misfit toys.
One could say, of course, WALL-E is a film mostly geared towards children, so it needs to cut corners with its message of hope. And that may be the basic problem—WALL-E undermines its best ideas when it must, in proper Disney style, accommodate a family audience to apocalyptic scenarios.
At any rate, I did like the portrayal of future humanity as lazy, useless couch potatoes too accustomed to machines to do much for themselves except watch entertainment on a portable screen. As in Josie and the Pussy Cats, they allow the powers-that-be to tell them that “Blue is the new red,” so they change the color of their outfits as they slurp from their smoothies. That vision struck me as not science fiction at all—more a telling present-day portrait of media-manipulated Americans amusing themselves to death. Too bad so many of them will now sit and watch WALL-E, not aware of how the film satirically mirrors them.