Of robots, Earth and cockroaches

As mentioned yesterday but to repeat again today, and expand:

About a year back, Ratatouille came out, which I adored. Give yourself a guess as to why I might like a film all about cooking, of course. Pixar to me over time has been a deservedly noteworthy studio rather than a uniformly ‘OMG BEST MOVIE EVER (whenever a new one comes out)’ experience — I understand the cultist impulse around the studio, there was some sort of hunger for a ‘new Disney’ out there, more than I realized — but they’d been on a solid roll of late: I enjoyed The Incredibles, Cars certainly looked gorgeous though I’m not up for a sequel idea, really, and Ratatouille, well, as mentioned.

As had often been the case, Pixar had a little teaser trailer for their next effort running before Ratatouille, and after a brief canned history of the studio’s big projects they mentioned ‘oh and we’ve had this one other idea kicking around for a bit.’ They showed a homely-looking robot and I think there was some brief voiceover bit about how he wanted to fly or something, and then the title, as also spoken by said titular character: “WALL-E.”

Aw, cute. Ugh.

Pretty much I was already sure what this was going to involve — some sort of nebbishy robot with a bunch of wacky robot pals, including the wisecracking sidekick played by Jack Black or the equivalent, plus an eventual love interest played by Renee Zellweger, and having hauled around garbage for most of the film he was going to get the chance to FLY! because he believed in himself. PASS. The formula having been now almost thoroughly set in stone I didn’t need to see another one.

The first intimation that I was wrong came when I saw the new Indiana Jones film, which had a Wall-E trailer. After a couple of seconds of “Oh, anyway,” I blinked a bit and thought “Wait…this looks really good. REALLY good.” A running thought among many has been that Pixar likes to test out a new effect or setting or something similar in each of its movies (as well as its notable shorts before the main features), and this time around it was definitely going to be space, ships flying around, not to mention robots, which combined with a slew of chase scene snippets made me go, “Okay, this thing looked like it moves, at the least.”

There was something else that I caught as well, though, which immediately piqued my interest — dialogue was minimal. In fact, there didn’t seem to be anything beyond the occasional mention of Wall-E’s name and a couple of other bits and pieces. I did some scrounging soon after and this was confirmed in a number of news stories — by no means a silent film, Wall-E‘s script was nonetheless not going to be driven by snappy 200 mph dialogue. And this, more than anything else, sold me.

To expand on a slightly earlier point — the formula as mentioned for many (by no means all but many) big-budget animated films this past decade and a half has pretty much gone one of two ways. There’s the Broadway-musical-on-screen — the logical extension of the earlier Disney classics, readily mixing songs and plot, into an even more tightly wound presentation, with the triple punch of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin building it up and then The Lion King landing the knockout blow from which Disney arguably never recovered. A massive moneymaker and widespread success, it straitjacketed a dysfunctional Disney operation (if you haven’t read James Robbins’s DisneyWar, run, don’t walk) into making and marketing an endless series of interchangeable clones that followed, with only a couple of films like Lilo and Stitch pushing against this goose-that-laid-the-golden-egg approach.

This left Pixar wide open to claim the throne as it so readily did from Toy Story onward, but the success of that film in turn created the other overwhelming formula — the sprightly, snappy and sometimes sappy CGI feature length entertainment. Obviously not too far removed from traditional animation efforts, admittedly, but as Pixar found its feet and steered away from the musical formula more to create straight up action/comedies with twinges of moral lessons here and there, the flood of knockoffs, reworkings and similar approaches — Disney itself and Dreamworks being among the most notable (and arguably the most notable offenders) — grew proportionately. Kung Fu Panda‘s in the theaters right now, something called Bolt got a preview before Wall-E — all of it can be laid at the feet of Pixar’s monumental position. Lots of wry dialogue, inspirational hoo-hah, pop-cultural parodies and name actors doing their thing. Ratatouille did this very very well, of course, but still, I knew what was coming — we all did.

And along comes Wall-E and knocks all that out of the park.

An overstatement perhaps. The film’s only just been out over a week and there’s no way of saying whether this is a new step forward or merely a lovely exception to a profitable but limiting path. And like all seemingly bold moves forward it builds on what had already been done previously — in this case reaching very far back into the language and history of film as a medium — to twist expectations with careful forethought. This is not simply untrammeled experimentation with no thought as to how it might succeed or not — Pixar is a business and both Steve Jobs and Robert Iger are not running a charity institution. But the film’s already doing very good business and that alone should provide a justification for more work that goes against the grain, however much the risk may be run of creating new cliches.

Wall-E is one of those films whose qualities reveal themselves in retrospection, in layers. The ridiculous controversy being manufactured by a flailing right-wing commentariat, starting ever more to find themselves on the wrong side of history when it comes to environmental questions (it’s been noted that ‘global warming’ isn’t even the issue in the film so much as trash and recycling — though I’d be amused if the likes of Glenn Beck argued that one must be litter to be a real American), misses many larger points about the film as, simply, popular entertainment, as assembled and presented by a top-of-the-line organization with money and time to burn.

The point about relative lack of dialogue was already noted but the two key people who carried that off need credit — Andrew Stanton as director/writer and perhaps even more importantly, the major voice talent of the film: Ben Burtt. Any Star Wars-and-after freak knows Burtt, whose role in sound design and editing from the original film onward not to mention any number of other films since, and here he gets to be ‘typecast’ again — the voice of a robot. R2D2 might arguably the most successful character in all six films depending on how you feel about George Lucas as a screenwriter, since of course all he speaks in are bloops and beeps, but Burtt had the perfect ear to make those sounds function as dialogue. As sound designer here, as well as lead performer, his dialogue is a hair more intelligible but, wisely, the only really understandable thing that Wall-E says is his name, along with that of Eve, the robot who he ends up falling for.

Everything else in Wall-E’s performance comes together as the usual fusion of acting talent any CGI character is by default, and with that as a lead, where to stop? As mentioned, Wall-E as a film has so much into it that it’s hard to easily come up with a flowing, carefully organized response to it all — one wants to point out things in fits and starts, because to mention one thing prompts a mention of something else. With that in mind, some fits:

  • Animated films have always served as a realm for pop-cultural parody and reference, as noted — so many of the Warner Bros. classics alone thrive on a subtext that is now utterly nonexistent (but, crucially, never keeps the films from being hilarious in their own right), while Fantasia‘s “Dance of the Hours” sequence, for instance, tackled everything from the overuse of said classical piece to popular dancers of the time, and from there it all snowballed. Similarly Wall-E draws on a slew of references from a now massive canon of English language SF films and entertainments — Star Wars by default, but Silent Running, THX-1138, Robocop, Alien, Blade Runner, most overtly 2001: A Space Odyssey and many more all get major or minor tips of the hat, for the most part quick and subtly enough that you catch them if you know what you’re looking at or hearing, but that otherwise doesn’t hit you over the head with the ha-ha-funny part of it (the closest that approaches being a snippet of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” towards the end, but it’s cleverly done). One of the best bits along those lines came with the revelation of the identity of the main ship’s computer in the end credits — Sigourney Weaver. Which meant that she was the one counting down the self-destruct sequence for the escape pod Wall-E finds himself in — and if you know Alien, I need say no more.
  • One of the more audacious moves in the movie hasn’t yet been talked about all that much, at least to my knowledge — the mixture of live action and animation in terms of the history of future humans. Mixing those two in general is hardly new, of course, but I thought the idea of having Fred Willard appear ‘in the flesh’ rather than a CGI character he only voiced, along with the ad campaign for the Axiom and the best moment to my mind, the series of portraits showing the ship’s captains not only turning into doughy blobs over the generations but changing from being human photographs to CGI characters — I thought all of that was pretty slick. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it all meant something per se, but I wonder how much of it was planned beforehand — was it a jury-rigged solution to a timecrunch on Pixar’s part? Doesn’t seem like it but you never know.
  • Dialogue and the judicious use of it already having been mentioned, speaking more of the sound design of the film, specifically its various environments depending on scene, deserves its due. The silence of the trashed Earth is breathtakingly creepy — you don’t know exactly what’s happened at first (and the cheery “Out There!” song that introduces the film and then fades into echoing nothingness is a killer touch), and once again it’s all about allusions one can make to past SF touchstones — old Twilight Zone episodes, Ray Bradbury’s post-apocalyptic short stories here and there — and the idea of it being nothing but very occasional random noises as Wall-E and his buddy the cockroach feels both serene and sad. The windstorms that sweep through every so often feel all the more harrowing, and the arrival of Eve’s rocket all that more monumental. Contrast it with the sparkling awe of the space sequences — shifting into visual territory, a friend noted that it was the scene in the trailer of Wall-E dipping his hand into Saturn’s rings that made him want to see the film — and the crowded craziness of live on board the Axiom, noise overload beyond description.
  • How humor and sentiment were handled in this film can be an object lesson for many filmmakers to follow. I can only think of one or two moments where they stretched for a dialogue joke — again, helped not to have much dialogue in the first place — while the visual and situtational jokes were a treat, some merely chucklesome, others flat out hilarious. Wall-E debating the nature of a spork, the cockroach finding a home in a Twinkie, Eve’s bad-ass attitude and intelligence mixed with giggles (somewhere over the past couple of days I had joked about a crossover film between Wall-E and Wanted and maybe it would be in the lead female character being pretty good with a gun), pretty much everything to do with Buy-N-Large — again, Fred Willard, pretty much being Fred Willard and not needing to do more, M.O. the cleaning robot’s increasing frustration with foreign contaminants, the boxer robot among all the misfit robots down in Diagnostics, any number of quick throwaway visual jokes and references…it goes on. As for sentiment, the various love stories all worked but of course it was Wall-E and Eve’s that would get the lion’s share — and as friend Abbott put it, “This movie made you really want to hold hands.”

The end of the film has caused a bit of hackle-raising over on ILE, and it’s worth some thought. Wall-E essentially sacrifices himself to ensure that the plant sample EVE has brought to the Axiom gets properly read, and, having learned how Wall-E cared for her when she was in hibernation mode earlier in the film, she stops at nothing to get Wall-E put back together when the ship ends up on Earth soon thereafter. The sequence where she rips through Wall-E’s collection of curios and spare parts and swiftly reassembles him, punctuated by a rip-roaring blast of her gun through the roof to let in sunlight and activate his solar cells, is both tense and hilarious, and the slight pause where it seems like it’s not going to work is stretched out juuuuust long enough…and he’s alive!

But it swiftly becomes obvious that in replacing his parts his memory has been wiped or replaced, or else something was otherwise damaged. He’s back to square one when he started his life hundreds of years before, a robot quietly compacting and cleaning things up, with no personality or knowledge of what has happened. Alive, but not the same.

I freely admit part of me would have found that ending to be the one to go for. But then again, I am looking at it from the point of view that sees the 60s/70s SF trappings of the film in particular, as well as the many, many excellent books and stories from that time. This would have been the ending in, say, a John Brunner story, or a Harlan Ellison one, or an Avram Davidson short — or, thinking of my post yesterday, a Thomas Disch one, perhaps. I said on the thread that Studio Ghibli could well have gone for that as an ending. Humanity saved, at the cost of a soul.

Others thought similarly, but the counterpoint was reflexive if understandable — “Are you crazy? That’s not what this is all about!” Which is also true — after an electronic smooch from EVE sparks up Wall-E a bit more and his droopy eyepieces kick back in, it’s a happy ending for all in the end, but it’s not one I have a problem with, it’s just what it is. Yet the whole movie has been about that as well, the endless yet understandable trope of love-conquering-all — friend Slocki said that the film was bleak enough as it is in any event, and he’s not wrong, and my own eyes are not that of, say, a six year old kid’s. (I was six when I first saw Star Wars; I wonder what the current six year olds are thinking about this film. We will not know for some time to come — but I admit that if the Death Star had destroyed the rebel base or that Luke had given his life or whatever, I would have been pretty upset!) Pixar doesn’t do downer, at least not yet — and maybe never, and there’s no real reason why they should.

Still, they came close, very close. An edge pushed, not the first time in animation by any means, or of course in film in general, but maybe it will mean something pushed further next time — a Grave of the Fireflies for a newer generation. In the meantime, I’m content to fade out on the elaborate art history joke of the end credits, the pretty good Peter Gabriel song on the soundtrack and the thought that it was great to have my initial impressions of this film totally upended.

So far? Best film of the year.

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