Soul of the Machine
Remember that Spike Jonze Ikea commercial from a few years ago, the one that made you feel sorry for the discarded desk lamp? Wall-E is like that, except where the Ikea ad was a parlor trick — a magnificent, ingenious parlor trick, but still a parlor trick — Wall-E is art. Hell, it’s philosophy — it’s practically religion.
I mean that. Pixar’s latest miracle is, on the surface, about a little robot, but it’s really about us, we humans, and how brilliant we can be, and how foolish we often are. It’s spiritual in the secular sense, in inadvertently (or maybe intentionally — I don’t know) asking us to contemplate the great things we are capable of, and how we so frequently fail to even try to live up to that potential. Not as individuals, but as a culture and as a species. It’s a kind of spirituality that we’re gonna need if we’re gonna survive ourselves — the warning-bell news today about how the rapidly warming Arctic will likely be ice-free this summer suddenly makes Wall-E seem urgently relevant — and I can’t think of another movie that even comes close to this one in trying to gets its head around that idea.
Because Wall-E (the voice of Ben Burtt), this little robot, is our creation, and that’s not even a name — it’s just a description of what the robot is: Waste Allocation Load Lifter, Earth-Class. It’s 700 years in the future, and Earth is literally trashed, a stripped-down garbage dump, an ecological disaster so vast and unfixable that the humans long ago up and left to who knows where. But the beginning of what’s so amazing about Wall-E is that it is still operating long after all its little fellow trash-cleaner-uppers have ceased functioning. It wanders the ruins of planet Earth, dutifully doing its now-lonely, pointless job of scooping up the junk, compacting it into cubes, and piling those cubes into what have become mountains of trash.
Writer-director Andrew Stanton creates a horrific vision of an empty, wrecked future Earth, and his animators have painted a world that is beautiful only in its ugliness: dusty and dirty, covered with the disposable detritus of humanity — everything from fast-food wrappers to broken-down cars to abandoned mega shopping malls; a sickly sun just barely breaks through an endless overcast; you can practically taste a metallic tang in the air. It’s a classic SF dystopia, rendered so photorealistically that it’s almost impossible to believe all of this came out of a computer… and yet the heartbreak of it — it made me cry, it’s such a poignant representation of human senselessness — is constantly warring with Wall-E’s joy, for he doesn’t realize that he’s in a dystopia. He’s alone, but he’s not unhappy.
I switched to “he,” because the technological miracle of Wall-E is that what was once merely a machine has become sentient, prompted, perhaps, by the other mysterious bits of human civilization he encounters (the ones other than him, because of course he’s really just another bit of forgotten junk). He has made a collection of inexplicable doodads that, maybe because of an odd unexpected spark across his CPU, suddenly began to enthrall him and fill him with curiosity: Rubik’s cubes, strings of Christmas lights, videos of Hello, Dolly, and a million other strange and marvelous weirdnesses.
Wall-E — and Wall-E — is almost the saddest thing ever, a cross between E.T. and those Mars rovers that just won’t give out: he’s a wonder of human ingenuity and yet also a product necessitated by human folly. He is a deeply touching symbol of us as both our own gods and our own demons. And Wall-E is Toy Story — both Toy movies were also written by Stanton — taken back a meta step, not about one little boy and the artifacts of his childhood but about the whole human race and the artifacts of the ignorance innocence we’ve yet to grow past.
This film isn’t a comedy: it’s a tragedy, a complicated, breathtaking tragedy that gets more tragic the more it veers into comedy, as happens when Wall-E meets a new friend in Eve (the voice of Elissa Knight), a sleek robot who arrives on a spaceship on, seemingly, an exploratory mission (her name is an acronym, too, but to reveal what it stands for would spoil a key plot point), and further, as Wall-E follows Eve when she later leaves Earth again. And it’s tragic in part because we get confirmation that our suspicions — first raised in the ruins of Earth, which are dominated by the debris of a megacorp called Buy ’n’ Large — that humanity devolved into an idiocracy are in fact true. And it turns out that Wall-E and Eve are more human than what humans have become.
Not only is this not a comedy, it’s not a kids’ movie. They won’t be bored by it, but they’ll miss what’s so special about it. It’s so exquisite — from the near-silent-movie-ness of it during its first half to the brutal but candy-colored satire of its second half — that people will still be watching this movie hundreds of years from now. And if we’re not lucky, and not smart, and not wise, those people will watch Wall-E and they’ll know that we knew that the ruination of the Earth was possible, and that we did nothing to stop it.
Oscars Best Animated Feature 2008