Monday, June 30, 2008
2008: A Space-Robot Odyssey
I've been waiting with bated breath for this movie since I first heard of it nearly a year ago. Pixar has been responsible for so much movie-watching pleasure for me, that I reflexively pine for each new release. Most recently I've raved and raved about The Incredibles, and though I was a bit lukewarm on Ratatouille when it released, I've come to love that one as well. Plus the two Toy Storys and A Bug's Life and Cars and Monsters, Inc. and Finding Nemo. It's really an astounding body of work, and especially from a single studio.
So I was primed to love their latest, and I went at my first opportunity. Wall-E is the story of a little waste disposal robot (named Wall-E after Waste Allocation Load Lifter, Earth-class) who toils away on an abandoned Earth in the 2800s. Humans have managed to make the planet uninhabitable, and left Earth after being overwhelmed by their own trash. They now reside on a huge ocean-liner-like ship out in space. Meanwhile Wall-E, apparently all alone down on Earth, continues his daily routine--for 700 years!--of finding trash and compacting and organizing it into huge, skyscraper-like piles. He basks like a sunbather in the dirty sun to recharge his batteries, and keeps himself in good repair with parts salvaged off of the other numerous Wall-E carcasses littering the city. At night and during storms, he takes refuge in a metallic bunker, a shelter / home which he has filled with a vast collection of artifacts of human civilization; anything to which Wall-E takes a shine gets brought back to his home--in a lunch box which he carries for the purpose--and carefully organized on motorized shelves. (There's a cute little snippet where, as he sorts thru trash, he finds a huge diamond ring brand new in a jewelry box; he looks for a second before tossing the ring aside and fixating on the fabulous spring-hinged box instead.) He is cheerful, curious, and has a thing for Hello Dolly, which he watches on an old videocassette in his bunker. His chief companion--his only companion--is a cockroach (a creature, it strikes me, who is even less communicative than a non-speaking trash robot).
After this stage-setting, the story proper begins with a probe sent from the human ship back to Earth in search of signs that the planet may have once again become habitable (apparently the planet is expected to rehabilitate itself). That probe is another robot--EVE, for Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator--and her specific mission is to look for signs of plant life. Wall-E immediately takes a shine to EVE, despite her being vastly more advanced, and heavily armed, than he, and he unknowingly makes a gift to her of the one specimen of plant life he has found. And... we're off and running.
Now, four days later, I still don't quite know what I think of it, and I'm not even sure what letter grade I'd give it. Technically, Pixar's work just gets better and better. Whereas The Incredibles and Ratatouille take place in an obviously cartoon world (though the Paris of Ratatouille at times flirts with photographic reality), much of Wall-E takes place in an exhaustively detailed world. Once again the humans we meet are obviously cartoon-ish (partly to show that they've become inhumanly rotund thru inactivity), but the mechanical world is rendered with amazing care and detail. Of course, the fact that almost nothing on the screen exists literally today enables them to take some license without drawing attention. But technically they get an A+
But what of the story? I'm actually a sentimental fool, and I expected to be a bit choked up at the little robot's isolation, slaving away and trying to keep his spirits up while quite alone on Earth. Or at his budding affection for EVE, which requires Wall-E to endure some trials. And it definitely was cute and a bit touching to see. But at the moment I can't really go further than that. Though I wanted to, I just didn't connect with much of the story as I expected to, at least not on this first viewing. I wasn't disinterested, but neither did I experience the rush of exhilaration I felt with The Incredibles. With Ratatouille I was aware of both the stunning visuals and also of the fact that none of the characters were very endearing; Wall-E features the same stunning visuals, of course, and the characters (such as they are) are more intriguing and likable. But they are constrained by having to pantomime their lines, and their interaction is of such a basic level that it's a little hard to relate to them (though maybe not for your kids).
Here's the thing: I'm sure I came to this movie with an 18-wheeler's worth of half-baked expectations in tow, and it was not exactly the movie I expected (even if I can't say just what I expected). I wonder if a second viewing, where I'm not waiting to see how the story unfolds, wouldn't reveal a lot of detail I missed the first time around, especially the nuances of the robots' interaction. Wall-E himself is actually quite expressive, all things considered, and he's humorously animated, being able to contort in a zillion novel ways. The animators actually have a tougher task with EVE, who has little more than her "eyes" for expression. They pull it off, but she really functions primarily to respond to / react off of Wall-E; so he is the emotional focal point of the film. So the story doesn't lack emotional content, and I surely don't know how one could improve it.
In the end, I was entertained to watch the film, and I left wanting to see it again. I guess that's a pretty strong endorsement. Add in that the film has been universally praised--often effusively so--and I must conclude that any reservations I have are likely due to my own limitations. Well, there it is: another viewing is the order of the day.
If I were forced to give it a grade now, I'd say B+.