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Friday, Dec. 5, 2008
It's funny; it's weepy; it's a classic
They say the best creators of science fiction are those able to extrapolate just a bit into the future. Think of William Gibson's descriptions of a wired, digitally interconnected world dominated by multinational corporations in 1984's "Neuromancer," or Terry Gilliam's imagining of a perpetual war on terror in 1985's "Brazil." And, of course, there's Philip K. Dick with his many writings on how technology would lead us to question the nature of reality.
Add to that list PIXAR's Andrew Stanton: His new movie, "WALL-E" (about a little robot, not a baseball player), imagines a future where humans are entirely dependent on technology, blobby tub-o'-lards who spend their days on floating recliners, slurping down supersize liquid meals while perpetually immersed in their digital screens. They have robots to cater to their every need, except perhaps wiping their bums. (But wait a minute, we already have those in Tokyo; we are in the future.)
It's clear from the very first scenes of "WALL-E" that Stanton, who previously directed Pixar hits "Finding Nemo" and "Monsters Inc.", is out to make a very bold movie. How many directors these days would dare to make a children's movie virtually silent and dialogue-free for its first 30 minutes or so? And how many would choose to set it in a postapocalyptic world where mankind has disappeared and all that's left are abandoned, decrepit streets full of rubble and dust, a silent world devoid of life?
Well, that's Stanton's sobering vision of the future, where the last life on the planet is a rusty little custodian robot called WALL-E (Waste Allocation Load-Lifter, Earth-class) who goes about bundling trash in this wasteland. WALL-E, with a long neck and big eyes reminiscent of E.T. (and sure to raise a chorus of squealed kawaii (cute) every time he appears on the screen), diligently performs his task, though it seems he's aware of its futility. While he befriends a cockroach (what else would survive the end of the world?) and plays jaunty musical numbers through his built-in speakers, there's an unmistakable loneliness about the little 'bot.
Can a robot feel lonely? That's a very P.K. Dick-ian question for a kid's film but one Stanton quickly dodges in favor of a proposition any kid would agree with: Everybody needs a friend.
WALL-E's chance comes when a spacecraft arrives and disgorges EVE (Extra-Terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator), a svelte oval probe robot sent to evaluate conditions on Earth. It's love at first sight for WALL-E, but his attempts to communicate with EVE earn a trigger-happy response from the well-armed probe. Eventually, he gains EVE's trust and takes her back to his home (in an abandoned cargo container), where he introduces her to the mysteries of the lost human world, such as bubble wrap and a Rubik's Cube.
Just when WALL-E thinks he's found the friend he was looking for, EVE's spacecraft returns and she's whisked away off the planet. Desperate to stay with his sweetheart, WALL-E grabs onto the spacecraft and tags along, destination unknown. (And in one of the film's better sight gags, we see billboards and ads on the moon's surface as the spacecraft blasts through a thick layer of space junk to leave Earth's orbit.)
WALL-E eventually finds out where the humans went, and as stated before, they've devolved into couch potatoes who can't even reach for a cup of coffee without using the recline button. If the Earth is to be repopulated, it's going to be up to the robots to pull it off.
Stanton and his team give us animation at its pure and simple best. WALL-E is little more than a rusty box with caterpillar treads and binocularlike eyes, while EVE is basically a floating iPod with firepower, yet PIXAR's animators work their best anthropomorphic magic to make these two seem so alive, often with the smallest of gestures. Can a robot sigh? You'd swear they can here. EVE, even with no face per se, can indicate anger or laughter or puzzlement simply in how she narrows or widens her LED eyes. WALL-E, for his part, bundles himself into a box when he's frightened, a wonderful turtlelike gesture, or hunches over dejectedly when he thinks he's lost EVE.
"WALL-E" is full of great off-the-wall jokes and more subtle winks, too: "Alien" fans will note Sigourney Weaver's voice as the ship's computer, and great ironic use is made of the theme music of "2001: A Space Odyssey." There are some simply magical moments here as well, the best coming when the low-tech WALL-E, who can't fly, goes after EVE, who can, in deep space; he uses a fire extinguisher to propel himself after her, and the film pauses to watch the two mismatched 'bots play, as they pirouette and arc in zero gravity.
Stanton's huge achievement here is to set forth this cautionary dystopia of a trashed planet, yet his characters are so cute, the pathos so poignant, and the jokes so clever and frothy, that the darker undertones don't turn off audiences. (Rather like Disney's "Bambi," actually.) Stanton has also created an ending that rivals "E.T." in its ability to make hardened, cynical adults weep like little babies. Who knew that the most moving scene of the year would be two robots holding handlike appendages and looking deep into each other's monitors? Not to be missed.