Friday, May 22, 2015

WALL-E (2008)

Director: Andrew Stanton
Writer: Andrew Stanton, Jim Reardon
DP: Jeremy Lasky, Danielle Feinberg
Editor: Stephen Schaffer
Score: Tom Newman
Producer: Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter
Starring: Ben Burtt, Elissa Knight, Jeff Garlin
Distribution: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Length: 1 hr. 38 min.

(For clarity's sake I think it's worth saying that I use the italicized "WALL-E" to refer to the film while I use "WALL-E" to refer to the character.)

Like Pixar's other films, WALL-E is sentimental and fits into a fairly rigid narrative framework. The conflict plays out between two clear-cut sides, and frequently defuses itself with humor that's only sometimes effective. Tom Newman, a talented but somewhat heavy-handed composer, provides a characteristic score that may be a little too pervasive for its own good. Still, the first half-hour or so of the film stands out from Pixar's other work. And perhaps more importantly (for me), it reflects how I tend to engage with movies.

From the start, we see the titular WALL-E has a meaningful relationship with the 1969 film Hello Dolly. He's a robot left on a post-apocalyptic Earth with no companions, but through film, he gets a glimpse of a world he never knew, and gains a small understanding of what it would mean to not be alone. WALL-E longingly examines the images in that film, and because of that, the lens through which we view everything else in the movie is based on a character's interaction with cinema. When we first see the more advanced robot EVE, we're struck by the contrast of her grace, brightness, and rounded edges against the gritty, angular backdrop of the Earth; like Hello Dolly, she's an image from another world. While most of Pixar's movies involve some kind of excursion or adventure, few actually manage to engender a sense of discovery as well as WALL-E does. Then, any comment the film makes on the society of the future comes from the dissonance between the audience's intrigue with the setting and the characters' apparent boredom with it.

Prior to the Axiom's introduction, WALL-E has no dialogue. Since this part is essentially a silent film, the filmmakers emulated silent comedies. Specifically, they studied the expressiveness of the face and body language, which has led many to compare WALL-E to Chaplin's Tramp character. As a result, WALL-E, EVE, and even WALL-E's pet cockroach are characterized efficiently; however, borrowing the language of silent cinema has the perhaps equally important effect of establishing a relationship between WALL-E and early film.

Everyone knows the cinema originated with silent film, and changed as it reached new milestones in technology. By stripping all scenes on Earth of dialogue, WALL-E references the origin of cinema on the planet that was the origin of humanity (while also mixing the futuristic score with older music).  When we reach the Axiom, the film starts to use dialogue. The Axiom runs on technology significantly more advanced than WALL-E the robot, so with the advancement of technology comes the introduction of dialogue into the film.

WALL-E's plot and visual language moves from points of origin to their most distant outcomes.  In doing so, it reveals the incredible breadth of information that exists behind things we might take for granted. The residents of the Axiom have all their basic needs fulfilled; in one shot we even see that humans of the future can live for over two centuries.  But they're totally consumed by instant gratification, without ever considering where anything comes from or why they want it. They live with a limited perspective; content is constantly streamed into their brains, but they'd rather move on to the next thing than think about what they already have.

However, the film does not totally lack of faith in these people; when offered a greater perspective, they are fascinated by it. Their society doesn't foster that kind of perspective, though not necessarily out of cynicism or hostility; in its absence, it's easier to deal with the heavy demands placed on its infrastructure. The robot protagonists of the film are driven by want, but in a way that shows how looking at things with appreciation and curiosity can be a positive force.

In the same way that the clips from Hello Dolly (and other live-action clips) or EVE's first appearance draw our eyes by being alien to their surroundings, the brightness and curved lines of the Axiom are initially exciting. However, the bright colors and constant, rigid motion therein eventually become oppressive, and the muted stillness of the Earth gains a new appeal, drawing us back to the origin point.

It could come across as obvious, but I think that the amount of faith it has in its human characters keeps it from being sanctimonious. The environmental message is only one part of the film's subject matter, and the more I watch the film, that part becomes less relevant compared to its themes of want, appreciation, and curiosity.

WALL-E imitates early film in its score and its characterization (unfortunately only for characters introduced within the first half hour); it also directly references 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Corner in Wheat, and others. The film encourages us to view art, as well as other things we want but don't need, in such a way that we let them engage our minds rather than just consume. It doesn't posit any particular tangible benefit from this (again, these are things we want but don't need), but it suggests a way that those with access to art can improve their quality of life and give them a new outlook on things that do have a tangible effect.

There's a scene in which the captain of the Axiom starts asking his computer all kinds of questions about the way the Earth was before humanity was forced to leave.  Every new idea he learns leads him to another one, and he starts learning about the old Earth at an exponential rate.  Where before his exposure to the ship's media technology left him oversaturated and myopic, when he receives a push in the right direction, he's inspired.

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