WALL·E ★★★★½

Scattered observations adapted from an online conversation:

• The structure makes curious and invigorating demands on the audience that are rare for a big-studio film. I would classify its two parts as Desolation and Population; the combined vision is of a world in absentia whether it’s populated or not, because, the film emphasizes, a live body not inhabited by a consciousness is the very specter of living death, a mannequin absent will, free to be directed by forces (Buy ‘N Large) that don’t have its best interests in mind. What seems to be throwing some viewers off—indeed, making them long for the isolation of a world overrun by landfills!—is the sense that the film doesn’t respect these listless, amorphous, blinded beings who’ve sprouted up in our wake and who don’t have any concerns or convictions beyond the screens in front of their faces (a critique of the various screens we use to literally screen off unpleasant ideas and inconvenient truths in our own lives). In other words, WALL-E does not excuse the apathy of these pod people because it does not see them merely as victims. I see the film as a kind of savage satire, which alternately mocks and mourns our indolence and indulgence, our love of the quick fix, our lack of a spirit of inquiry and curiosity (which WALL-E most certainly has in abundance), and the terrifying lineage we pass on to the next generations. (The truest, most damning shot in any movie this year is of a classroom of newborns being coached in corporate jargon and cant, being inculcated with meaningless values. Before you jump at the evil of the Buy ‘N Large corporation, ask yourself: Where are the parents? This cuts to the core of the matter.)

• Equally important, the film can’t help but laugh at humanity because it does not see the sicknesses in its wake—indeed, it has completely discarded awe and wonder, foregoing the splendor of the cosmos for a constant suicidal numbing of the senses. Commentators have proclaimed the necessity of its “green” message (rightfully so, of course); however, in addition to cautioning about the demise of our planet, the film is cautioning about the demise of the soul, the incremental decline of inquiry, curiosity, and interest in beauty that leads to the eventuality of a living death. So, we aren’t “bad” people (the film is misanthropic to make a point about life, not as an end in itself), but we will nonetheless be responsible for our own doom unless we regain the zest to ask essential questions.

• Enter WALL-E and his lower-case conservatism, fascination with the appearances of things, and his zeal for new experience. It might be useful to consider that WALL-E—a forgotten model among a deactivated line that itself symbolizes a broken promise made to Earth’s citizens—is over 900 years old and a member of the lone remaining constitutive species (service robots) since humans ceded control to systematic illusion. With the exception of the HAL-9000-inspired pilot, all the robots have been programmed to conduct a single task or fulfill one objective (WALL-E’s compacting, EVE’s plant gathering, MO’s cleaning). They aren’t meant to be sentient at all, merely utilitarian. (In fact, the “real” WALL-E is the amnesiac we briefly glimpse toward the end of the film.) WALL-E’s cognitive ability is an accident of his programming, a consequence of his conservational agenda: Hello, Dolly! is a conserved relic found amid the junkyard scraps. And the romantic ideals that he passes on—nonverbally, for the most part—are lifted wholesale from that artifact of human civilization, when we actually created things. How does he know, in the first place, how to set up a VCR or play the tape or construct a vertical lazy Susan to display his findings? Who knows—we aren’t privy to that information. Why does EVE scream in distress, why do some robots but not others decide to break orders and save the day? I suppose these are logistical blips in an otherwise rich thematic field. I also think there’s an element of intentional shame here that’s part of the satirical strategy. It wants us to ask: How can these human-programmed machines be more selfless and feeling than we, who can’t even muster the conviction to remount, without aid, our motorized auto-loungers? Perhaps we can grant that part of this is hyperbole in the service of a very stern, humorous warning to the human race. But, we are reminded, all is not lost, because this unique WALL-E is a product, a creation of our once-proud art and industry: WALL-E is, essentially, our productive error. In this respect, the film walks a neat line that embraces multiple interpretations and means of experience.

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