I went to see WALL•E this past weekend with my five-year-old (nearly six-year-old, as he’ll tell you) son. His comment: “this movie is too sad.” But he still wants to see it again. Mission accomplished from Andrew Stanton’s perspective, I’d say.
Myself, I found it a distinct disappointment. Why?
- There is no character development. WALL•E is who he is from the very beginning. He does not grow or change. EVE changes in as much as she falls in love with WALL•E, and becomes more of a personality, but she doesn’t really learn anything of consequence, and she doesn’t really grow. And the humans obviously undergo some moral growth, but it is (a) purchased very cheaply, and (b) none of them are actual characters. For me, this is a pretty fundamental problem.
- There is almost no plot. Of course, WALL•E is a Noah’s Ark story, and the template doesn’t have much plot. But it’s still a problem. In this case, though, the fix the creators have settled on makes the problem worse, because the plot they have tacked on – the autopilot doesn’t want to let the humans go back – didn’t pack much emotional punch.
- There are huge problems with what there is of a plot. Why has the cruise ship “sailed” so far from Earth, given that it isn’t going anywhere? Where does the cruise ship get new matter to sustain its charges (we see huge amounts of garbage being dumped into space, so we know it is not a closed ecology)? Most seriously why is EVE still being sent to look for vegetation if project recolonize has been cancelled??? This is a huge, massive, gaping plot hole that basically ruined the second half of the movie for me.
- And why does EVE pack heat? Her function is to look for vegetation and, if she finds some, shut down and wait to be picked up. The Earth is uninhabited, so there are no enemies or wildlife to worry about. Why should she be heavily armed? Apart from the obvious need to make her more like Angelina Jolie, I mean. But that’s another way of expressing a problem that pervades the movie: over and over, the creators made choices that were cool over choices that made their created world more persuasive. A minor example: the liberation of the robots from the psych ward. Forget the fact that it doesn’t make any sense to celebrate the release of these malfunctioning machines – why is there a robot psych ward at all? Why aren’t these machines just, you know – turned off?
- Minor complaint, but I really hate it when the science is gratuitously wrong. I don’t mind that EVE appears to have magic powers, including the ability to fly without producing any exhaust. I do mind that the spaceship that brings her to Earth and picks her up uses old-fashioned rockets that somehow don’t damage poor old rust-covered WALL•E. I don’t mind that the Axciom has some kind of magic gravity. I do mind that if you tilt the ship (relative to what?) everything slides to one side. I am willing to buy into the rules of your world – but I want your world to have rules.
WALL•E is being compared to the best of the Pixar films, but I actually think it’s most comparable to Cars, another film with a poorly thought-out alternate world and a very simple plot (albeit with a whole lot more character development than WALL•E has).
Now, all of the above having been said, I enjoyed myself, and I thought there were wonderful things in the movie. The first half-hour – alone with WALL•E and his pet cockroach – was beautiful and amusing; the second half-hour – the wooing and then the caretaking of EVE – was even more affecting. If the movie had continued in this vein, my complaints would be fewer and less-serious. But I really felt like it went off the rails once we got to the Axciom.
Finally, I wonder about what WALL•E – and hence WALL•E – is trying to teach us. Specifically, I wonder whether the creators of the movie have really connected the virtues of their hero with the moral we’re supposed to take away. WALL•E, after all, is a garbage-robot who becomes a junkman. His job is to dispose of the detritus of our civilization; instead, he comes to cherish it and make something beautiful out of it. But the movie never connects this central aspect of WALL•E’s personality with his mission to humanity (or, for that matter, with his mission to the other robots). WALL•E finds the plant, but that’s basically an accident. He wakes a couple of humans out of their stupor, but that doesn’t take much – just a hello, really – and that, again, is not clearly connected to his junk-collecting. Humanity, apparently, has been sending out fleets of robots to look for vegetation. Why does it take WALL•E to bring us home? What has he learned that we need to learn from him?
Miklos Haraszti, in his book, A Worker in a Worker’s State, concludes that the key experience that lifts the workers he has labored alongside out of their alienation from their own labor is the experience of making “homers” – bits of machinery or mechanical sculpture that may be more or less useful, or entirely useless, but whose creation is the only pure expression of the worker’s involvement with either the materials or the industrial processes that constitute their daily work environment. When I read it, I was inclined to think that Haraszti’s point was both true and not so true as he thought – that is to say: you can’t build a civilization out of “homers,” but perhaps “homers” are an unappreciated key component of industrial civilization. In any event, WALL•E’s actual activity, what gives him joy, is making (or finding) “homers” out of garbage. But it’s just not clear to me that the brave new world the humans and robots are going to build together upon their return to Earth derives any lessons in particular from what WALL•E actually does – the “outro” shows humans and robots planting seeds and restoring the earth, and is implicitly against industrialism as such (yet somehow still pro-robot). But it doesn’t show an increased affection for the peculiar, the quirky, or for what would appear to be garbage. WALL•E gets a lot of emotional mileage out of our already-ingrained preference for the used over the new, the lived-in over the untouched, the dirty universe of Star Wars’ rebels over the antiseptic Death Star. But the world the humans are going to rebuild, at least as represented in the “outro,” is really just as clean and stylistically pure as the world of the Axciom.
This is a pretty big missed opportunity, it seems to me. I may be grading WALL•E too hard, measuring it by the apparent scale of its ambitions rather than rating it against other kiddie flicks of the season, but that’s what higher ambitions will get you: more serious critical attention. And WALL•E, while it has wonderful things about it – just for having brought back the silent movie, it deserves high praise – just didn’t impress me as the work of art it’s being praised as. I could see (and have seen) Toy Story dozens of times. I’m not sure I could see WALL•E more than once or twice. And that’s the real test, isn’t it?