Wall-E (2008)

Directed by Andrew Stanton

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It feels disingenuous to call a movie magical, but the first 20 or so minutes of Wall-E really are magical.  Like the famously heartfelt and somber montage near the beginning of Up, the mostly silent first act introduces us to a hero who can only beep and mutter strained, monosyllabic words.  He’s a he, having been given male attributes (certainly the gaze), and he soon meets a she, a sleek robot named Eve.

In the beginning we watch as Wall-E, a trash-compacting robot, dutifully and playfully maneuvers through what remains of earth, hundreds of years after humans have abandoned it.  It’s a murky, hazy landscape apparently inspired by the look of films from 1970s’ (cinematographer Roger Deakins is a consultant for the film) which will contrast effectively with the pristine albeit disturbing world of act 2 and 3.

Wall-E either doesn’t realize all humans are gone or doesn’t care.  He’s a robot programmed to do a job which he seems to have been doing for hundreds of years.  In that time he has developed a curiosity for the items he stumbles across as well as a romantic interest in old Hollywood musicals and interpersonal relationships.  See, Wall-E is lonely, but this being a children’s comedy, his loneliness is somewhat whimsical.

Then Eve arrives.  She is brought to Earth to scan for any signs of life.  While Wall-E is filthy, rusty and E.T.-like, Eve is the latest ipod.  She’s sleek, immaculate and partially designed by Apple’s Jonathan Ive.  Wall-E is old, and she is new.

Wall-E falls in love with her immediately, and it takes her time to warm up to him, but eventually she does.  Wall-E delights in showing her his home and everything he has collected over the years.  When he shows her a plant he recently discovered, she absorbs it into a hidden compartment and shuts down.  Then we get a heartwarming but sad montage of Wall-E desperately trying to wake her up before becoming resigned to her new state.  Picture a puppy trying to wake a deceased owner.  It’s sad, and it’s kind of like that.

When a ship comes to take Eve away, Wall-E latches on for dear life.  This introduces us to what’s left of civilization.  Humans live in a series of ships (I think there are others…) built to look like a combination between a large mall and cruise ship.  Humans float around in recliners from which they never have to get up.  Actually, they never have to do anything.

Just as there is a long stretch of time devoted purely to Wall-E’s day to day life before Eve jumps into his life, there is a long sequence devoted just to Wall-E observing this strange, new world.  Whereas before the world is strange to us and not to him, this time it’s strange to both of us.  We have been given time to empathize with Wall-E, and now we are in his shoes.

This world is pretty disturbing.  Humans can no longer walk, at least not without considerable effort.  They spent their days playing virtual games, eating every meal from a cup, facetiming each other, sitting and gaining weight.  It’s some serious cultural commentary, both about the dangers of consumerism and the responsibility of what to do with tools that only exist to make our lives easier.

Wall-E races through this environment because he’s searching for Eve.  She is brought to the captain so he can figure out what to do about the plant she’s found.  This brings with it news that Earth might once again be ready to sustain life, a daunting proposition considering the captain and every person onboard was born in space.  The captain inspects Eve, finds no plant, and he is relieved to learn that this was all a false alarm, back to regular programming.

Eve is now considered damaged, so she is sent to what is basically the mental asylum wing of the ship.  Wall-E follows her, and in a desperate attempt to save her from a routine inspection which he perceives to be a horrific dismemberment, he causes a chain of events that shuts down the wing and releases all of the defective robots.  They hail him as a sort of leader.

Eve takes Wall-E to an evacuation module to send him to Earth.  He is reluctant to leave her behind, but then they discover that another robot has stolen the plant and sends it off into space.  Wall-E and Eve race out there to save it, and after a sort of musical intermission (in which they weave through the air like a choreographed dance), they return to the ship with a plan to get the plant to the captain.

The problem now is that they are wanted criminals.  The main antagonist turns out to be the ship’s autopilot, a HAL 9000-like robot who orchestrates a mutiny against the captain.  The final climax of the movie becomes a race to get the plant to a chamber which will signal to the ship that it is time to return to Earth.  Our robot heroes work on this while the captain learns to walk and fights back against HAL 9000.

The good guys win, and they return to Earth with plans to recolonize the planet.

There is a lot going on to make Wall-E work.  It’s a playful and seemingly simple story that requires us to buy into a hero who can’t speak.  In many instances we don’t get a read on a particular character until we see Wall-E’s reaction.  He’s a very expressive character who tells us how to feel.  We have to know when he’s sad, angry, happy, etc.

It’s similarly hard to read all of Eve’s emotional cues, but Wall-E’s reaction to her tells us what we need to know.  In one scene, for example, she turns a gun on him, walks up to inspect him and then quickly turns and leaves.  We then see Wall-E’s eyelids sink, his voicebox sigh, and we understand that he’s in love.  This colors how we start to see Eve, even before she becomes much of a personality.

Humanity is a joke in Wall-E but individual humans are not.  They’re all slightly slobbish and certainly lazy, but the movie never makes them an enemy.  Instead the story celebrates the humans’ instinctive curiosity for a world they were never much allowed to explore.  It mirrors Wall-E’s own curiosity.

Other than the captain, the only two humans we meet are John and Mary.  When they are forced to look at the world around them (one falls out of his chair and the other’s tv screen is turned off), they don’t get angry for the interruption, and they express awe at just about everything.  The same goes for the captain who becomes fascinated with Earth, asking the computer questions like a kid pouring through wikipedia.

It’s not the humans that are the problem but rather than institutions.  In this case it’s a Walmart-like company called Buy ‘N Large which had clearly taken over the world and ultimately caused its destruction.  700 years later, these people never had a chance.  This just happens to be the only world they’ve ever known.

So, because the humans are sympathetic characters, the story makes a villain out of the ship’s autopilot.  You can safely assume that this robot has been with the ship since the beginning, dutifully serving captain after captain.  The character’s villainy is never really explained, but we can guess that the autopilot became tired of serving the humans for so many repetitive years.  And yet, the autopilot wants this to continue?

Does this evil robot have a personality or does it just recognize that it’s sole purpose is to exist within the ship and once the ship lands, its purpose is null and void?  It’s unclear, and it’s maybe the only rushed through aspect of the movie.  For many adults, the resemblance between the autopilot and 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s HAL 9000 is obvious, making us fill in the blanks and use many of HAL’s character traits to define this one’s.  For children this is not the case, but the same, single glowing red light is enough to inspire a certain amount of fear.

The point of Wall-E seems to be that we are inherently good.  We want to make life on Earth work, but it’s the institutions which get in the way.  This is symbolized through Buy ‘N Large, whose logo and presence will make us think of any number of department stores and large corporations.  The President of Buy ‘N Large also seems to have been the President of the United States or at least treated as such.  This blurs the lines between government and capitalism, something which certainly became more apparent with our current president.  The story seems to suggest that these institutions can and will fail us, but at our heart we are curious people who hope to do good.

Up Next: Phantom Thread (2017), Seven Psychopaths (2012), Up (2009)

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