Dir. Andrew Stanton
When I reviewed Pixar's Up a few months ago I mistakenly labeled WALL-E as “overtly political.” Needless to say, further viewings have revealed a much greater depth of field. WALL-E's combative message is not merely aimed at the near sighted politics of greedy, flag-waving fascists but at anyone who has bought into the edenic capitalist consumption myth of having whatever we want whenever we want with no consequences. Taking place over 800 years in the future the film's themes find their roots in the California gold rush, the early days of oil, and the roaring 20s. Though WALL-E's point is clear the film is never obtuse and manages to do what Pixar does best: tackle a specific and relevant issue through the narrative framework of entertaining cinema. In this case it's a humanitarian message of preservation and symbiosis by way of a taut romantic thriller.
“Taut romantic thriller” may not be the first words that come up when discussing WALL-E. That is largely because the film was marketed as a movie for children and as a culture we have systematically lowered our collective expectations about the capacity for a children's movie to be either engaging or insightful. Lowered expectations may account for a fraction of Pixar's critical success but pales in comparison to the consistent accomplishments of the studio. The Pixar family are cinephiles. Over the course of ten films they have channeled, referenced and parodied so many great and memorable films that their Cinema of Reference has become a complex web of influence and tongue-in-cheek cultural pandering to mature audience members. This is not meant to sound negative. However, we have to ask ourselves if we aren't suppose to laugh at the by-now-cliche references to 2001: A Space Odyssey? Perhaps we are, but what do we make of the live-action Hello, Dolly that WALL-E watches obsessively and mimics enthusiastically? And how do we account for the influence of Mack Sennet and Charlie Chaplin on the film's delicious use of slapstick? Never mind the intricate use of realistic camera angles and techniques which subtly show deep gratitude to the principle output of Roger Deakins and Barry Ackroyd. By all accounts, WALL-E is not merely an incidental piece of children's entertainment but instead an impeccably balanced and fully realized work of art.
Perhaps what I enjoy most about WALL-E is the level of critical discourse that surrounds the film. To add to the ideological melting pot I'd like to suggest that WALL-E diagrams three different relationships to the universe: the Human, the Analog and the Digital. In the film the Human is heavily repressed, almost completely subordinate to the Digital, suggesting the timeless idea that we are slaves to our technology. The Digital is the streamlined and ultimately degrading process of subjugating one's own desires to one's duty. The Digital works unconsciously and effectively to accomplish its “directives” before embarking on its next objective. The Analog is the meeting point of the two. Technological but imperfect, the Analog is filled with a sense of history; a memory that is not its own (hence WALL-E's adoration for Hello, Dolly). The Analog works in cooperation with the Human but effectively utilizes the time and energy saving components of the Digital. Admittedly esoteric, this theory is built up throughout the film's plot and truly comes together in the film's closing credits which show short scenes of machines working in combination with humans to heal the Earth. Avoiding the pitfalls of Luddite doctrine, WALL-E suggests that technology (both Analog and Digital) work in cooperation with humanity. The film plainly states that we need to control our technological reliance. We must also reconcile our desire to explore the infinite domain of the Digital with our duty toward our planet, each other and our selves.
Considering the strong influence of the post-apocalyptic film genre, WALL-E brilliantly avoids the inconclusiveness and lack of resolution those films so often contain. The film's objective is admirably optimistic albeit in a characteristically simplified way. The film's only flaw is a effectively impotent antagonist. This nominal “villain” is a HAL 9000 protege cleverly named Auto whose only motive is “staying the course” aka maintaining the methodical (if unintentional) disintegration of the population's empathy and collective conscience, not to mention their anatomy. At the film's climax the Captain (who symbolizes the oppressed Human mentioned earlier) overthrows Auto and by doing so emancipates the ship's passengers from the tyranny of their own self-imposed slavery. The Axiom is revealed to the audience as a Panopticon with Auto seated at its zenith.
Herein lies the cinematic problem: the need for an antagonist when the true enemy is the weakness of the collective. The focal point of the film is not who is to blame but how to fix the problem. This is, of course, refreshing in an world where there is a constant need for scapegoats and it is heart warming to consider the possibility of moving beyond our crude system of ulterior motives disguised as moral righteousness. However, as a cinematic reflection of the real life situation we are in, this notion leaves something to be desired, especially if one considers how the humans are portrayed as blameless idiots who destroyed Earth simply because they didn't know any better. This idea is excusably one dimensional and the uplifting message of working together tends to over power the question of whether or not we are destined to repeat our same mistakes. By and large, however, WALL-E succeeds over other films which attempt to grapple with the true nature of our current dependence on technology and our susceptibility to what is easy. The film never once becomes heavy handed or “overtly political” but rather exists in a sublime sphere of inspiration and humanely motivated filmmaking, deftly blending stunning visual poetry and empathetic insight to produce a humble portrait of humanity through the lens of technology.