A Haunting Tale of the End of the World in "WALL-E"
I’ve been mourning the death of George Carlin all week, and in my recent searches of the Net I found his appearance on Inside the Actors Studio. In that episode, he said something of note: “To me, using technology to fix the mess made by technology is what [humanity is] planning to do, and it doesn’t seem to fit for me….I look at it and I think, ‘Wow, I hope I live long enough to watch it all collapse, just for the fun of it.’” I think he would have enjoyed and even relished WALL-E, a film that stands to validate every claim made by commentators on our species like Carlin while still finding some reason to cling to hope.
At this point, you are probably aware of the basic concept of the film, but for those who need catching up: WALL-E is the last remaining trash compactor/disposal robot on a completely-abandoned Earth. By the time we meet him, he is already unique due to his developed sense of curiosity and wonder. Once he meets EVE, a state-of-the-art robot sent down to Earth with a specific purpose, he seeks her companionship and falls in love with her, while trying to get her to be capable of falling in love with him. The plot is unusual in animation standards, in that it is both incredibly simplified and yet also demands highly-attuned attention and detail-seeking to get the whole picture. This is another way of describing “a film the whole family can enjoy”, but this time from a legitimate standpoint. There is nothing here that a child cannot understand. In WALL-E, the filmmakers have a main character who himself doesn’t comprehend all the facets of what’s at stake for himself, his love, and humanity, so a child following the story of WALL-E will be easily enthralled. But adults will catch more. The throwaway details will stand out for an adult and fill in quite a bit of the story about what happened to Earth and its people. In fact, the fate of what’s left of humanity, when we see it, is likely to be more startling for adults than for kids, since adults will more thoroughly know how and why it came about.
That said, you parents out there in the reading audience may also be happy to learn that this is not a relentlessly depressing or disillusioned film. As much as I believe in being honest with kids and not sugarcoating (or full-out lying about) reality, WALL-E does deal with some dark material. Undoubtedly, the environmentalist messages and the futurism that predicts mankind’s de-evolution of willpower might give a parent pause to how much they want their children absorbing such pessimistic fare. But WALL-E is not a pessimistic film. In fact, it is a very optimistic, uncynical film that casts what little blame it has to give without unnecessary bitterness. The key to this (and this is partially spoilerish, so skip ahead if you must) is that the humans of this film are infantile as opposed to greedy slobs. There may have been a time in WALL-E‘s history when the humans were disgusting and slovenly enough to be massive jerks, but centuries later these poor souls are born into a society/structure that gives them no other choices than to live the way they do. They are as programmed as the robots themselves, and WALL-E stands alone as a testament to free and innocent thought. The truest villain is an absent figure in the film, the (possibly defunct) Buy’N'Large corporation which controls every aspect of life and clearly was responsible for crudding up Earth in the first place. They’re the real thought police, and they police the people just as much as the robots, if not more. Humanity, in its most structured form, was responsible for the end of the world and the slow death of itself, but basic human urges like curiosity and meaningful interaction get the credit from WALL-E as being worth saving. In fact, those very urges I just listed are what defines WALL-E himself.
This may be one of the few times in an animated film that I don’t need to spend much time talking about the voice actors, since the dialogue is so sparse. But that time deserves devotion instead to Ben Burtt, who’s about as much of a celebrity in his field of sound design as anybody could conceivably be. Ben adds a couple of signature sounds here and there; WALL-E even gives us a couple of trademark Artoo whistles. But otherwise, what Ben achieves here is a powerful use of sound as an atmospheric device. This is especially true in the first part of the film while we’re still on Earth; communicating that the planet is totally empty takes the right combination of subtle far-off sounds combined with standout ones initiated by our few foreground characters. Thomas Newman, who worked with Stanton on Nemo, proves to once again be the right choice as composer for a conceptually-difficult project, with his unusual but melodic tones driving us through long sections of sheer visual storytelling. And since we mentioned visuals, first let us pay homage to the cinematography (i.e., layout based off of storyboards) of WALL-E since it is so relentlessly amazing and compelling in visual composition. Pixar’s never had any problems getting amazing visual images on the screen before, but WALL-E looks even more unique than anything else you’ve seen on screen (one wonders how much Roger Deakins’ reported influence as an advisor was). Last but without a doubt not least, the character animation is the core of this film. Without any words in these characters’ mouths as assistance, the animators have constructed full, organic, and evolving personalities in these lead robots (and, for that matter, everybody else) that supply any storytelling requirements we would need, and then some. If ever there was a film that could showcase the truest talent of how character animation can fuel a film, it is WALL-E.
The talk about WALL-E will continue without a doubt into the years, as we get both closer and further away from facets of its future, as well as how it fits into the Pixar line of stories. It is undeniably one of their best achievements, although I wouldn’t dare attempt to rank it amongst the others. I would need some time (and many rewatches) for that. But if nothing else, let us close on the fact that Pixar has now tackled questions of great political rawness and come out even-handed without ever compromising a point-of-view. It’s true that the film is environmentalist at heart. But it is also humanist, and the great folly of the debate is that there’s some kind of inherent conflict between humanity and nature. We would never have become the people that we are if we weren’t enthralled and captivated by the power and majesty of our own planet. What we need to fear is losing that.