Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Summer of Films: WALL-E (2008)

WALL-E is a great film. On the surface, it’s a cartoon about a silent robot which falls in love with another robot. But it’s really so much more. In fact, WALL-E is the first Pixar film to truly show me the depth of their storytelling prowess.


Here’s the plot. In 2105, the Earth is ruled by a single corporation, Buy-n-Large Corporation (BnL). Because of pollution and garbage, the Earth has become uninhabitable. To solve this problem, BnL shoots the population of the Earth into space aboard luxury starliners, where they live in great comfort and happiness. Unfortunately, having nothing to do, as the starliners are automated and robots wait on their every need, the humans become morbidly obese and essentially incapable of movement as they become dependent on the machines.
Meanwhile, robots like WALL-E are left behind to clean up the garbage as everyone waits for the Earth to become habitable again. BnL, however, concludes that the Earth cannot be saved and it orders the automated starliners to take care of the humans in perpetuity.

WALL-E takes place seven-hundred years after the Earth was abandoned. WALL-E is one of the garbage robots, and the story begins when WALL-E discovers a small seedling on the Earth. He nurtures it, only to have it found by EVE, a robot sent from the starliner Axiom to search the Earth for signs of life. She reports her discovery, but when she does, the ship’s automatic pilot Auto, suppresses her discovery and tries to have her reprogrammed. WALL-E, who has fallen in love with her tries to save her, and she, WALL-E and the figurehead human Captain must fight Auto to free the humans from their gilded cage. At the end of the movie, they return to Earth where they discover millions of seedlings, and like Noah, they set about rebuilding the world.

Why This Film Excels

WALL-E is an amazing story. Why? Because it’s really several different stories, all told simultaneously and beautifully. For example, on the surface, WALL-E is a love story in which a robot which cannot even talk thoroughly convinces the audience that it has fallen in love with another robot. This is truly an impressive achievement. Having an audience believe that two characters are in love is already a difficult challenge. Making them cartoons doubles the challenge. Making one of them mute ups the challenge exponentially. And putting them into a story that is not a love story makes this a nearly impossible task... yet, Pixar pulls it off without a hitch or hiccup.
Next, WALL-E is an allegorical version of the story of Noah’s Ark from the Bible, but that’s just the beginning. Consider that Noah’s story is not exactly a strong story when it comes to filmability. Not to mention that Pixar doesn’t even get to use the spectacle of the flood to pump up the story. Further, the film takes place in the future, and it cannot be overtly religious. Again, these are serious hurdles that make Pixar’s ability to pull this off pretty incredible.

But there’s more... WALL-E is essentially Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” brought to film. Yes, it is. Whereas Orwell warned of a brutal, oppressive government crushing freedom, Huxley provided a similar warning in “Brave New World,” only he pointed out that government need not be heavy-handed to be insidious. Instead, it can use hedonistic pleasure to control the people just as easily as it uses violence. WALL-E delivers this identical message. Consider this:
On the surface, the humans seem happy. They have food and entertainment. They want for nothing. Notice also that the “government” is not inspired by evil. Indeed, Auto genuinely believes he’s looking out for the welfare of the people. His job is to protect the humans by keeping them on the ship, and that is all he wants to do. There is no better example of a benign dictator on film.

But first impressions are misleading or at least incomplete. The idea that the humans are happy is shown to be a mirage when they realize how helpless and dependent they’ve become. This awakens something inside them, something which drives them to regain their freedom despite everything they will lose.
The idea of Auto as a benign dictator falls apart as well. First, note that Auto suppresses information which runs counter to his mission. His motives may be good, but this is tyrannical behavior which strips people of the freedom to make their own choices. He even tries to destroy EVE, because he sees her as a danger to his mission. Suddenly, Auto’s methods are those of dictators the world over. Then, when the Captain orders Auto to set the humans free, Auto ignores his orders and fights the Captain to keep the humans prisoners. Essentially, in the name of doing good, Auto hides the truth, eliminates those who know the truth, and use his power to deprive the humans of their independence.

This is a truly subtle and difficult story to tell, yet Pixar does it and it does it without any false shortcuts, such as making Auto defective or secretly programmed to be evil. Evil just becomes natural to him because he has absolute power. Pixar lays this out without adding fake motives to try to explain away difficult truths. That's a hard sell for a cartoon. Add in that at the same time it does that, Pixar tells the Noah story and the love story, and you have a true achievement here.

Truly impressive.



Jim said...

Great analysis. Two points: (1) I thought that the reason the humans became fatter was due to the lower gravity. Fred Willard's character makes a statement to that effect, and considering the journey was only supposed to be a fraction of how long everyone was in space, the generational effect were multiplied. (2) There's also a message of dangers of corporatism (not capitalism). One corporation is allowed to take control of the entire planet, and it appear to be cause and solution of the underlying problem.

whitsbrain said...

This movie is expertly done, the animation jaw-dropping; but it makes no attempt to conceal its contempt for consumerism, which flies in the face of the toys, fast food and other "product" tie-ins that it raked in cash from.

It also carries with it an environmental message that isn't too heavy-handed until you think about the fact that Wall-E exists because humans have trashed the Earth, making it unlivable. And it's all because people shopped at evil "big box" stores.

Kit said...

One of my favorites. It gave me a love of "La Vie en Rose" that continues to this day.

The entire "Define Dancing" scene might be one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen. Its the kind of movie that puts a big smile on your face.

Kit said...

Auto is perhaps one of the most perfect embodiments of the quote attributed to everyone but the person who said it (Gerald Ford):
"A government big enough to give you everything you want, is a government big enough to take away everything that you have."

AndrewPrice said...

Jim, Thanks! That is the reason the ultimately give for the humans becoming obese, but it's a bit of a cop-out. They set the groundwork for hedonism and lack of effort being the real cause, but then suddenly throw out the gravity thing. I'm not sure why they made that choice.

In terms of the corporatism idea, a lot of liberals point to that as a reason why the film is actually leftist ("opposed to evil corporations"). But the reality is that it is an anti-government film, just like Rollerball and it doesn't matter what the name of the government is. Either way it's the highest form of authority on the planet and that makes it a government, and it's form is essentially a dictatorship.

Anonymous said...

It's a beautiful movie, so beautiful that I have no wish to revisit it anytime soon, even though I own the Blu-Ray! And yes, the love story here is better than most live-action love stories.

It's a shame there are no-nothing pundits out there who see the complete opposite message in this movie: "It's another librul anti-capitalist environmentalist movie from Hollyweird! Blah!" :-)

There's a critic at PJ Media who's written about this film and he pretty much does a 180 from your review. I tried correcting him on Twitter but I don't think it worked.

AndrewPrice said...

whitsbrain, There is an anti-consumerism message, but at the same time, it's really more of an anti-gluttony message. Notice that they aren't really given a million choices which end up taking over their lives so much as they are being given super-sized everything which ends up enslaving them.

Similarly, the environmental message is a conservative one. It is about conservation so that the Earth can be used by humans and, more importantly, it notes that the Earth can be healed from pollution. Leftist environmental messages are that resources are finite and once gone the world ends. Moreover, the point to environmentalism for the left is to keep humans separate and apart from the Earth. This film has the message that the Earth belongs to humans, so long as they maintain it for their use, which fits the conservative message of stewardship and not being wasteful.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, The dance is truly beautifully done. It is animation at its finest.

Nice quote on government, and that fits the film perfectly. This government seems benign, but that's only because it hasn't misused its power yet. Now that it faces an existential crisis, i.e. the humans won't need Auto anymore once they are on the planet and his mission as he defines it will fail, it becomes abusive.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Same here. This is one of those that I rarely watch because I don't want it becoming white noise.

Unfortunately, most of the critics just don't "get it" when it comes to films like this. They see the messages at their most superficial and they never actually ask what the real message is that gets conveyed. Take the environmental message, for example. They hear "pollution" and they scream "it's an environmentalist movie!!!" But the message is not one leftist environmentalists embrace. To the contrary, it goes against their fundamental belief that the goal of environmentalism is to keep the world pristine. It's conservative environmentalists who see the goal of environmentalism as being the preservation of the Earth for our use.

Similarly, a lot of the critics get lost in the fact that a corporation runs the world. That's totally irrelevant. It could be a Clownocracy, and it wouldn't change the fundamental fact that this is THE government In fact, suppose they named the government "The council of clowns"... using the same logic these critics use, they would be arguing that this film is anti-clown. They are missing the point. The point is that concentrations of power, especially in the highest authority in the country, no matter how benignly intended, will eventually lead to very bad things.

Anonymous said...

Andrew -

"It could be a Clownocracy..."

I thought we were living in that now!

[rimshot] :-)

Backthrow said...

Great film. It would be the equal of Pixar's very best (The Incredibles and Ratatouille), but for one story-related flaw:

The ship is geared to hedonism through consumerism, but since this is the umpteenth generation of travelers, and no one, apparently, has a job (or seems capable or interested in holding one, when we meet them) --not even an easy, sedentary one-- where are they getting the money/credits to continually buy all the goods and services provided (all advertised, constantly) to maintain their infant-on-a-cruise-ship existence? The only human who seems to (sort of) have a token job, is the captain. Was the original generation so wealthy (every last one of them) that they were able to bankroll double-digit generations into being perpetual trust-fund babies? And if they are all buying their Big Gulps and pedicures and everything else --all day, every day-- where is the money going? Even for a family cartoon film, that's a pretty big lapse in logic.

Thankfully, the robots' funny/touching love story overshadows much of that.

KRS said...

BURN-E is my hero.

KRS said...

Backthrow, I think the answer is they have evolved into an automated communist utopia where the people are just cattle who don't get eaten. The robots do everything, including repair themselves. Everyone has exactly the same standard of living - notice how a new fashion trend is announced, everyone pushes a button and their jumpsuits all change to the new color. There's no personal incentive to make yourself better or achieve anything even in recreation ("We have a pool?"). Since money as we know it is nothing more than a good whose purpose is to efficiently transfer wealth, it is completely irrelevant in a "perfected" communist utopia.

AndrewPrice said...

Nice shot Scott! :D

AndrewPrice said...

Backthrow, I think the answer to that is that they have a communist system in which they found tireless machine workers to replace the humans. Sadly, this is probably a glimpse into humanity's future one day.

AndrewPrice said...

KRS, That's exactly how I understand their world.

djskit said...

Andrew - you mentioned on several occasions that pulling off such feats is especially difficult in cartoons. I've found the opposite. It's seem to be terribly difficult for films to pull off earnest, heartfelt emotion with live action. Too much "irony" (*or maybe we've entered the "post-irony" era) I guess.

But with animation, you can be as earnest as you want. "Chicken Run" comes to mind as it pull off these earnest human emotions is a way no live action can.

PikeBishop said...

Andrew, you do realize that the "tireless" machines to allow man to live a life of leisure is one of Marx's original visions of the future and, ironic as it may sound leads him to be qualified as a "romantic" philiospher.

Tennessee Jed said...

I never saw this. I suspect it was a combination of my unfortunate inclination to not seek out animated features with a natural distrust that the message would be barely concealed liberal talking points. It is refreshing to hear it is much more than that. Perhaps my only point of difference regards your comments regarding the central message of Brave New World which was a denunciation of American culture, mass production, and mass marketing. I look forward to screening this when the opportunity arises.

AndrewPrice said...

djskit, I think the problem with cartoons is that (1) people expect them to be funny and kind of stupid, so drama is harder and (2) for most people, it is harder to relate to a drawing than a living person.

AndrewPrice said...

PikeBishop, That is true about Marx, but communism seems to view people as those tireless machines.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, True. Huxley was a socialist and he did not like America, but like Orwell, he misunderstood what he was criticizing and he ended up blasting a hole in socialism.

Rustbelt said...

Andrew, I haven't seen this one, so I really can't comment.
However, I saw this film featured on the Youtube Channel, "EconStories," as part of their "EconPop" series. The series basically looks at movies and discusses the economics and economic themes behind them. (Not so much the storytelling themes.)
Since I haven't had time to see this film, I'd like to know what you think about their analysis.

Here's the link.

AndrewPrice said...

Rustbelt, Very nicely done! Thanks for the link!

In terms of the accuracy of his analysis, he's talking about the premise of the film, not the action of the film. In other words, he debunks the idea that the world gets to the point where the film begins. He doesn't really address the economics of what happens during the story.

And in that regard, let me toss this into the ring. First, while I generally (99%) agree with him, you can't fully rule out the idea that the Earth becomes uninhabitable because of pollution. Indeed, while he is correct that so far technology has always helped us solve the problems we create, it is possible that we just push things too far or in the wrong direction at some point. So I'm not offended by the premise, even if I can't see it really happening.

Secondly, again, you have to look at the subtle message of the film. The government (BnL Corp) concludes that the Earth cannot heal itself. Hence, they send the humans off into space forever. If you stop there, then yes, this is a heavy environmental message. But people seem to forget that the very point to the film is that the Earth HAS healed itself and is habitable again. In other words, the powers that be who hand down the heavy environmental message are wrong. So the real message is something different than what people focus on when they only look at the opening moments, as this guy does.

So in conclusion, his analysis is excellent in a general sense, but he misses the very point of the film.

Koshcat said...

The movie was ok. I have trouble with movies that personify inanimate objects. I have less of a problem when it is done to animals because they sometimes seem like they have emotions; your dog or cat actually seems happy to see you when you get home. I don't think your computer really cares if your home or not, if you turn it on or not, if you abuse it or not. It was why Data was one of my favorite characters on TNG until they put in the "emotion chip".

AndrewPrice said...

Koshcat, In this instance, it works for me. That said, I generally agree with you that robots should not have emotions. After all, the point to writing a robot is to create an emotionless being.

John Johnson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John Johnson said...

The best part for me of this wonderful movie is that the voice-over for EVE wasn't supposed to use understandable words, but she didn't know. The result was just perfect to illustrate the socio-economical difference between the upscale EVE and lower class WALL-E when they were having their first conversation on Earth.

Also, the thing I like about Pixar is that they realize that to get to the kids, they have to go through their parents. It shows in WALL-E but more so in The Incredibles.

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