I saw WALL-E last Thursday with my Dad. Thirty-one years ago, he took me to see Star Wars. Thirty-one years later, I took him to see this story, also featuring a cute droid voiced by Ben Burtt.
WALL-E is the story of the last robot on Earth, a robot who is tirelessly carrying out his task: to clean up the city around him. The world is poisoned and denuded, the only company WALL-E has is a rubbery, resilient cockroach. Humanity has fled to somewhere to avoid the cleanup: a rather more grand version of picking up your legs while your Mum hoovers under you.
The first part of the film is pure modern Chaplin. Pixar prove, yet again, why they’re the masters and mistresses of animation. From the first shots, I fell in love with the little guy and his trundling, bra-bothering antics. He’s small, he’s cute, he’s got an overlarge head and short arms so, inevitably, he triggers all of our protection responses. Add to that his innocence and earnest optimism, then you’re in Cute Overload country. How can you not find a robot miming along to old musicals using a hubcap for a hat lovable? And, yes, it is cheeky of Pixar to use the Mac boot-up sound as the bot’s fully-charged signal but I still smiled.
I won’t repeat the entire plot, if you haven’t seen WALL-E do not proceed any further. Really, don’t. If you have and want a reminder, click here.
WARNING – SPOILERS AHEAD!
So far, we knew all this from the trailers. But it was impossible to guess just how beautifully Pixar could paint these scenes. The desolate earth, the rusty, dusty colour palette, the patina of wear over every surface. It’s lovingly detailed and yet restrained enough to still maintain realism. It isn’t over-egged. And it easily could be…
At this stage of computer animation, we’re still in the intentional phase. Everything in WALL-E has been placed there by someone. If you see a tin can or a bottle, a pebble or a scratch on a display, it’s because a human chose to put it there. It’s a kind of collective hyper-auteurism. Perhaps in the future, computer animation will become as generic as music making and every kid will have a Garage Band of CGI, complete with stock lighting, scenes, detailed environments and fully-textured models. We aren’t quite there yet. While all those things do exist for every package out there, film-makers like Pixar still prefer to roll their own. They don’t do presets.
This makes WALL-E all the more marvellous. The depth of world-building blows every other animated film out of the water. It makes Final Fantasy look like a cut scene. As WALL-E bleeps and bloops through his day, it almost feels like you’re watching one of those silent documentaries about factories. It doesn’t feel fantastical but it remains wonderful.
Then, into this meticulously ragged world comes EVE, a robot from the sky! The contrast is bludgeoning: she is sleek and flies and glows and hums. WALL-E farts and clanks. EVE breaks the sound barrier with the nonchalance of a cat. WALL-E has trouble putting his treads on in the morning.
Of course WALL-E’s going to fall for her, it’s geek love!
I can’t help but feel that WALL-E here represents a certain male romanticism, the kind you have if you’re a straight lad who’s a bit too shy to ever talk to the girl you fancy at school. You’ll do her a mixtape you’ll never give her, sigh when you her in her tennis kit but never, ever say anything. Of course, some men are fearless, feckless girl-grabbing bastards. But that really isn’t WALL-E. He spends his time limping after EVE, sighing and probably writing soppy indie songs about her.
When she finally notices him, it’s the age old story: boybot loves fembot, fembot has prime directive that forces her into a shutdown coma. Come on, we’ve all been there.
Finally, on the ship that sent her on her mission, we meet humanity. I’ve seen some reviews of WALL-E that allege that this part of the film is some kind of crypto-Randian allegory. To those people, I say – get out more. Yes, humanity seems to have become supersized babies but I didn’t see this as some kind of anti-welfare state propaganda. You could equally easily say the film is crypto-Commie as, inevitably, it’s a large multinational corporation that has removed humanity’s freedom by presenting myriad flavours, all of them vanilla. If you do want to rivet a spurious political agenda to this film, I think the most accurate would be to call it anti-statist.
And other people have been bleating on about the depiction of the blubbery humans. Look, I’m an enormously fat bastard myself. I’ve been teased about being fat for the last 34 years of my life. It’s a life thing for me, not some post-20s, Johnny-come-fatly, beer-bloat. And I found nothing offensive at all.
In fact, the bleating bloaters are completely missing the point of WALL-E. The blimpoid humans are docile and bucolic but as soon as the chips are down, they show their true nobility, they break out of their pens. What about where they all co-operate at the end to get the plant sample to EVE? What about the part where the captain, despite his bulk, manages to stand up and challenge MacinTalk, the autopilot? Come on, he’s a big, fat, hero at that moment, I wanted to cheer!
WALL-E’s message is that the size and shape of humans is irrelevant, what makes us human is our thirst for freedom and independence. We need this even if it puts us in certain danger. In the current political climate of repressive regimes like China, the US, Iran and the UK, squashing freedom by labelling it as terrorism / counter-revolutionary / atheistic, that’s a pretty damn optimistic message. Let’s hope that in this particular science fiction film, that part wasn’t fiction.
I’ll leave this review by returning to the start: Star Wars. This is what I said about it before:
I fell in love with ‘Star Wars’ way back in 1977, when I was 11.
I came out of the cinema with my Dad and my head was buzzing and filled with a thousand flashing images. As we left the Eagle Centre car park, everything seemed futuristic. (Or should that be ancient since it was ‘a long time ago?’) There used to be neon lights lining the exit and I remember them strobing past the car windows as if we were in the final approach to bombing the Death Star.
Great art makes us look at the old world around us with new eyes. After seeing Star Wars, everything around me seemed supercool, superfuture. When I came out of WALL-E, I looked around with WALL-Ed eyes. As my Dad and I got on the last escalator down from the cinema, I couldn’t help but think, ‘Do we really need an escalator that’s six steps long? Would it kill us to walk down six stairs?’ I thought about the rest of my evening which would be spent lounging, half-watching a huge TV while probably typing rambling inanities on the internet. Next to houses full of people doing roughly the same. Street after street…
I paid for my car park ticket. The machine beeped and blipped at me in a very WALL-Esque manner. Leaving the car park, the barrier whirred and sighed as it eat my ticket and then, with a twinge of regret, raised its arm to let me past.
I’m sure I saw, in my rear-view mirror, as I was just going round the corner… I’m sure I saw it wave goodbye.