Sunday, June 29, 2008

Wall-E: an inconvenient mirror everyone must look into

Wall-E is going to be one of the most important movies of this decade. That is my fearless prediction. It is not just a milestone in animation, nor is it just a milestone for Pixar's ability to tell engaging stories in surprising ways, but it's also likely to make a difference with regard to social attitudes in the United States.

In the book "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" Phil Dick paints a picture of a society that is not only one facing the aftermath of a regional thermonuclear war, but also that is drowning in its own detritus. The slang word for trash is "Kipple," and Kipple seems to its observers to spontaneously generate and also reduce useful items to more of itself. The humans who either will not or cannot leave a blighted Earth find themselves overwhelmed by Kipple. Although much of the book makes it onto screen in the classic movie Blade Runner, the whole subplot of how the remnant of humanity deals with Kipple didn't make it to the movie.

Like the Kipple-ized word of "Do Androids Dream...", the world that little Wall-E, a ruggedized trash compactor on tracks, inhabits is choked off by trash. He has worked non-stop for 700 years, and has made little dent in the great mounds of junk that has littered the industrial landscape. There were literally millions of his kind manufactured, but only he has survived. He's really, really good at what he does...the ziggurats of compacted trash that share the landscape with the abandoned skyscrapers of what is for all indications Manhattan are rapidly built by this little bot.

His only companion is a cockroach. However, this roach has evolved into an elegant sliver of insecthood, probably twice as big as the legendary Palmetto Bugs residents of the Southeastern US have to fight, and seemingly impervious to crushing blows that would have destroyed its ancestors. It communicates wordlessly, but eloquently. And this is the theme of the first half of the movie: wordless, eloquent communication. Pixar did not take the easy way out and have talking robots and talking bugs: all the emotion of the first half of the movie is communicated with little to no speech.

In his 700 years of existence, Wall-E has basically grown himself a personality. He collects cool items he finds amidst the trash, and one day he finds the coolest item of all: a little sprout of a plant. Coincidentally, a probe spacecraft has landed on earth, sending out probe droids, EVE units, looking for the same thing. Wall-E sees one, and gets a mad crush on her. She's strictly business, however, scanning the landscape for something she never seems to find.

Eventually Wall-E manages to persuade EVE to visit his little shelter, inside the guts of some sort of derelict construction droid. It is there EVE finds what she's been searching for, and goes into plant preservation hibernation mode. Wall-E is baffled by this turn of events, thinking she has malfunctioned somehow, and becomes her self-appointed protector. He follows her off planet, onto the Starship Axiom, where the social satire aspect of the movie is crystallized.

It seems the vast majority of critics, although almost universally captivated by the first half of the movie, are somewhat alienated by the second half on the starship. However, in a lot of respects, the Swiftian humor of the predicament of the Earthlings on their endless cruise is the point of the whole film. Unlike Kung Fu Panda, there is no lingering or lame jokes over the "fatty fat fat fat" issue. Humanity, after 700 years of very cushy living and micro-gravity, has indeed become soft and weak and flabby. But instead of beating us over the head with it, it is established as fact for purposes of the story and we move on.

No, the most important aspect of the humans and their lives is their constant consumerism, and how powerful it has made the last standing corporation. Buy n' Large Corporation has replaced everything in society: it has swallowed up all the other corporations and even the governments of the World. The little live-action clips of the CEO of this gargantuan operation are a clue to how dominant they are. And even aboard the Axiom the constant drumbeat to consume mass quantities is incessant. Of course, all this consumption leads to all kinds of waste, which is dealt with in the waste disposal hold by monstrous versions of Wall-E.

Wall-E is a call to re-examine the consumption-mad society we have had since the end of World War II. And coming from Disney/Pixar, it is a call far more likely to be heeded by families than the one given in the documentary An Inconvenient Truth and the much less artful Happy Feet. One suspects that there might actually be a lot of interesting conversations between parents and children after seeing the movie.

The movie ends on an ambiguous note, resolved only by the end-credits sequence where the traditional Disney "happily ever after" resolution takes place. I would have rather they kept the ambiguity, even if it meant losing the end-credits song co-written by Thomas Newman and Peter Gabriel. I've been a Gabe fan for literally decades, it's cool to see him get a crack at doing a song for Pixar. Maybe he'll 'play out' the next Macworld Jobs keynote? That would be cool. Do it live, Gabe.

As is typical of Pixar, there is no big musical number unless you count the ones on Wall-E's videotape of Hello, Dolly. And that's good. I've noticed this has also rubbed off on Disney and on their competitors. You don't see many animated features done in Musical Comedy style anymore. And that's a good thing. Even more crucially, it is an inspired move that a relatively obscure movie musical becomes little Wall-E's obsession: it could have been done with a more familiar one like Singin' In The Rain or Top Hat; or even Disney properties like Mary Poppins or Beauty and the Beast.

It seems much more random, and hence more believable, that a movie musical made in the space after the decline and fall of the big movie musical in the late '50s and the Disney revival of the genre in animated form in the '90s would be Wall-E's tutor about things romantic. It took guts to ask Disney to get rights from News Corp. for this chestnut, when they could have succumbed to "corporate synergy" instead.

Oh yeah: as a votary of the Cult of Mac, it was amusing that this was the first Pixar movie with a lot of Mac references. It's nowhere near the reigning champion for these sort of references, the anime TV series Serial Experiments: Lain, but it was amusing to this Mac geek that when Wall-E gets his solar charge for the day he reboots with not just the familiar Mac "P-RAM is OK" chord, but the original version of the chord heard on the Quadra 700 and its contemporaries. EVE was actually designed by Jonathan Ive, designer of the iMac series, the iPod and other Apple products, complete with shiny white plastic surfaces and sleek styling. Playing with my copy of Mactracker just now, I just realized that EVE's reboot sound is quite reminiscent of one used in only one Mac: the fabled 20th Anniversary Edition. These are references none but dedicated Mac geeks will get. And look for the appearance of an iPod Video in Wall-E's hovel. I suppose this all qualifies as the "corporate synergy" I decried in the last paragraph. But somehow it doesn't seem as repugnant as if they had dumped songs from a Disney musical in the movie. Yeah, I'm a fangirl. Sue me.

This is going to own both the Animated Feature Oscar and the Annies. But then again, everyone knows that.