My stint of reviewing computer-generated movies continues, which will likely take more than a week if I want to cover much beside Pixar films, and tonight we head deep into space. Wall-E is a tale of one lovable robot falling head-over-”heels” for another and becoming a hero to her and many others in the process.
It’s rare that I actually enjoy romance stories in movies, since too often I see them tacked on or forced, but this one feels like the cornerstone on which its surrounding plot is built, even and much more so than the environmental themes that govern this film’s setting. As a result, it becomes one of the most valiant and touching love stories I’ve ever witnessed.
Some of the best stories don’t need words.
“The earth will become desolate because of its inhabitants, as the result of their deeds.” ~ Micah 7:13, New International Version
Happy, upbeat music plays as the film unveils a world devastated to the point of being uninhabitable. Deserts and wastes cover much of Earth’s surface, and even the oceans look polluted. The towering cities from our day lie in (often well preserved) ruin, and the intentional mismatch between the soundtrack and the visuals makes me think of the Fallout series of games.
A tiny trash-compacting robot rolls along the streets of one city or another, now lost to dust and the ages, and his model name is clearly printed on his chassis: Wall-E. He indeed looks like the main character from Short Circuit, but the disconnect between Wall-E’s “cute” appearance and his intended function isn’t as jarring as it is for a military robot.
Much of the first twenty minutes of the movie are spent watching our hero do what he’s probably been doing for centuries: Clean up the Earth from where the humans left off. Given that he seems to have emotions and a personality, it’s amazing the poor thing doesn’t go stir-crazy with hardly anyone else around. There’s a lot of silly slapstick at poor Wall-E’s expense, but other than the occasional classical song, there’s very little dialogue. This movie has mastered the concept of telling its story through its presentation, to abounding benefits. Among the city skyscrapers are gigantic buildings of trash-compacted blocks, built up over many years with no other obligations, tasks, or even life options afforded to their dutiful creator.
As the movie begins showing ads for its fictional world-spanning corporation “Buy N Large,” it continues making arrangements for an environmental subplot that the story doesn’t hugely focus upon. The movie as a whole generally does not preach a message: it doesn’t need voice-overs or character asides telling viewers to take care of the Earth (these discussions do happen–rarely), and it generally does a great job of respecting and thinking highly of the intelligence of its audience, which is especially impressive in a children’s movie. Likewise, Wall-E himself, who is largely mute, is capable of expressing a variety of emotions with little more than his eyes alone. Independently movable and replaceable, and marvelously crafted, Wall-E’s eyes are capable of tilting enough to imply happiness, sadness, or even fear. They’re rarely in a “default” state, however, and the disturbing and wordless reason for this is given late in the film.
Truths widely accepted
The Axiom, the jewel of the Buy N Large fleet, is a gigantic luxury liner, traveling through space with the remnants of humanity. Wall-E views an advertisement of the ship’s comfortable features, complete with real-life people as opposed to computer-generated characters, and the clip ends with a quick shift between the blue Earth of centuries ago, and the harsh, brown Earth shown in the movie.
Wall-E has his own little “home,” which is as adorable as he is, decorated and organized with items he wants to keep from his trash-gathering rounds. Amusingly, the robot places much heavier emphasis on function than economic value, throwing out a diamond ring while keeping a variety of toys.
From an old musical, our hero learns about the concept of love and develops a desire for it–yes, the whole movie is largely this heartwarming–but he has no time to dwell on this, as a gigantic storm evocative of the Dust Bowl blows in. Wall-E, who runs on solar power, shuts down until the next morning, rocking himself to sleep on a creaky shelf. Oh, my goodness. His pet cockroach eats from what looks like a Twinkie, which still looks edible despite probably being only a few centuries younger than Yoda.
Amid some more comedy scenes, one of which is actually important for later in the movie, Wall-E finds something that’s hard to imagine in this setting: plant life! To protect this reminder of the Earth’s greener and healthier years, he sticks the plant and its soil in a boot.
Beyond the near-total lack of dialogue in the early portions of this film, the story smartly refuses to give viewers much of any information beyond what Wall-E himself is aware of. There is no in-hindsight narration, as contrasted with Ratatouille and especially Aero Troopers, and there are no alternate or omniscient viewpoints, forcing the audience to learn about the setting as the main character does.
After an unusual take on Pixar’s long-practiced chase scenes, wherein the hero is the one doing the chasing (the object? A laser light, like a cat might go after), there’s actually a rather ominous scene of Wall-E being surrounded by multiple laser lights, just before the ground gets incinerated by exhaust from a ship landing, giving the poor robot just enough time to hide beneath red-hot rock. This ship is not the Axiom but is in service to it. The craft deposits another robot, a sleek, high-tech egg shape with blue “eyes” and an initially withheld purpose.
Who is this newcomer, whom the story treats as female, and what does she want? The answers in their full extent come slowly, even as the enamored Wall-E builds this strange robot a precious look-alike statue of her, which she ignores. (She’s not vain or full of herself but is focused almost totally on the tasks and instructions she was told to carry out, just as Wall-E was.) She does, however, possess flight ability and some impressive weaponry–which, given knowledge from previous viewings of what she’s actually trying to do, raises the question of why she’s so heavily armed.
After the two robots finally find time to get to know one another’s names–hers is “EVE,” which is itself important, though not in a symbolic or metaphorical sense–another dust storm blows in, and the ever noble Wall-E lets her share his home for safety. After some completely cute slapstick, usually involving the story’s eponymous hero being comically injured by one means or another, EVE’s purpose is finally revealed: when Wall-E shows her the plant he’s been preserving in a boot, the satisfied recipient sticks it inside her chassis, considers her current directive fulfilled, and shuts down.
Vainly trying to wake her back up, Wall-E takes EVE through an unthinkably sweet montage of one-sided dates, including a walk “together” and a hugely extended game of Pong. This is both adorable and heartbreaking, as wishing for a return on the investment of time and resources spent in a relationship is definitely understandable. As our hero’s options run out, the movie rescues him, along with its own pacing, by having the earlier craft return to extract EVE and blast off–with Wall-E in tow, his poor cockroach left behind. That’s where this film really begins.
Scenery, scenery, scenery.
The launch is incredible to witness. Even though the rocket just blasts without issue through piles of space junk, including derelict satellites, space and its accompanying music are absolutely gorgeous. This truly looks as much like a film from Disney’s own animated heritage as it does a Pixar film, and if there’s any scene in this entire story that justifies its existence as a movie, it is this, with even more visual wonders to come.
The Axiom itself, which Wall-E and the still inactive EVE now find themselves on, is filled with complex machinery that makes its own sort of eye candy, as does (surely) the city-like environment inside the ship. Colorful advertisements line the streets, advertising food, clothing, and convenience, and Wall-E ends up in the midst of heavy traffic from other robots, as well as from people in their comfortable chairs with built-in viewing screens and cup holders. The people are fat to the point of being unable to walk or support themselves, which I can only imagine would be humorous to watch while sitting in a theater surrounded by people enjoying their favorite refreshments while in comfortable seating.
Two halves of a secondary romantic couple, John and Mary, are introduced. It’s tragic how the Axiom’s relentless commercialization keeps most of the characters from enjoying the beauty all around them, including an indoor beach, which one would think the ship’s entertainment industry would want to run more ads for. We also meet the artificial intelligence AUTO–not at all a parody of HAL-9000 (which leads to a late-film moment that’s so ridiculous that it becomes hilarious)–and the captain, who is just as fat and lazy as pretty much everyone else aboard their ship, whose incredible age and time of duty is revealed.
Something that occurred to me when I first watched this film was that while mankind’s love of technology and convenience placed them and their planet in a very difficult situation, forcing them to evacuate, that same technology is now their only hope for survival, as opposed to their ultimate undoing. Likewise, regarding the ultimate fate of the Earth, the film breaks from being an environmentalist polemic by positing that Mother Nature is no damsel in distress and is thoroughly capable of taking care of herself. Earth is declared to restore itself to a life-sustaining status without input from a society that largely seems more concerned with cupcakes.
The film is hugely morally noteworthy.
Wall-E’s journey to find the now reactivated EVE causes several unfortunate occurrences that find them both being captured and sent to a repair ward, as EVE no longer has the plant she was carrying and is assumed to be defective. Said repair ward is more than a little unsettling, since it essentially looks like a mental-illness institution for robots. Our boy may be a bit of a klutz, but that doesn’t stop him from being a big hero. Recovering the boot-plant from nearly impossible odds, Wall-E is rewarded with a beautiful scene with EVE that’s one of the most creative things I’ve ever seen in a Pixar film or any other. Meanwhile, John and Mary hook up, and it’s at this point that I begin to wonder why an advanced ship like the Axiom doesn’t also have liposuction robots, to be honest. Our two primary robots are still declared as dangerous “rogues,” due to earlier events, and and their being pursued as fugitives keeps the pacing going.
While images of a destroyed Earth shock the captain into wanting to take action, the movie’s characters themselves are heavily divided about how to respond. It’s especially interesting that the differences of opinions and ideas come from uneven levels of knowledge and not from malicious or selfish agendas. The story doesn’t really have a villain, so to speak, in that there is no one character who acts evil or as an obstacle for the simple sake of doing so. More to the point, this is where the movie truly becomes something even more beautiful and worth cherishing: I’ve seen too many films, including many of my all-time favorites, where romance feels irresponsibly abrupt or like an afterthought, and in choosing to build its plot around the careful development a romance, Wall-E distinguishes itself from a number of stories I’ve watched.
Beyond that, this story’s namesake hero has a truly praiseworthy love for EVE. He doesn’t show it by continually staring at her or by “talking” about how wonderful or pretty she is, which he really altogether can’t do. He shows how much he cares for his beloved through his deeds. He lays down all that he has for her. He willingly and without hesitation makes sacrificial efforts to protect her from danger–even when it’s only perceived–and in so doing, this little robot becomes more of an inspiration than any of the actual humans in the movie. This goes both ways: EVE watches her internal camera’s footage, where Wall-E does all he can in order to take care of her while she’s in her standby state, and this touches her and spurs her to return the favor for all he’s done.
There are some really brutal scenes where Wall-E’s endless compassion toward EVE and the passenger-residents aboard the Axiom is pushed to its absolute limits, followed by a heartrending yet very creative “reconciliation” scene that, were it not a massive spoiler, I still wouldn’t know how to begin to describe in words. The movie’s ending feels a bit less realistic in its optimism than I found Ratatouille’s to be–especially once I began pondering details about whether any animals beyond cockroaches still existed or were otherwise preserved–but on the whole, it’s as unfathomably lovable as is most everything else in this movie.
Conclusion: Down to Earth
It’s always wonderful when a movie improves on repeated viewings. When I first watched the film many years ago, I highly enjoyed it but was put off by some minor issues I had with various aspects of the presentation. Now that I am older and able to appreciate the more complex triumphs of the writing, I don’t even remember what bothered me about this story in the first place.
Wall-E is a triumph in its art, its narrative, and its morality, with a romance that is built on altruism and empathy from start to finish and a social-environmental subplot that never talks down to its audience (though the universally fat society aboard the Axiom might potentially be interpreted in any number of ways). Indeed, large portions of the film don’t do much talking at all, which says wonders about not just having a worthwhile story but knowing how to tell it properly.
The movie succeeds beyond of its gorgeous setting and its consistently impressive visual effects. Beyond the many wise decisions already mentioned, Wall-E’s premise is one that is easy to relate to and is told through a simple but powerful story. Understanding love isn’t difficult, but while showing it can be, it’s always worth it. The story doesn’t bog itself down in needless technical jargon, even if more details about life aboard the ship wouldn’t have been so bad. In the end, however, the message I can take away from the movie is this: Sometimes one way of blessing the Earth might very well be to bless just one of its people … in ways that only the two of you will ever understand.
Image credits (thanks to Disney and Pixar)
Movie poster — source
Wall-E and heavily damaged Earth — source
Rubik’s Cube — source
Cockroach — source
Plant — source
EVE and lighter — source
Saturn’s rings — source
Interior of the Axiom — source
Captain and AUTO — source