With the delightful WALL-E, Pixar continues its as-yet unbroken winning streak of instant-classic films for all ages. From among their oeuvre, my personal tastes run toward the darker and more psychologically complex The Incredibles and Ratatouille by director Brad Bird. Andrew Stanton’s WALL-E certainly ranks among Pixar’s greatest hits, all films that will resonate decades hence with children of all ages (as the saying goes). Other studios continue to produce disposable pastiches such as Shrek and Ice Age, laden down with pop cultural references that will not age well and eventually be forgotten. While eye-popping now, perhaps some day Pixar’s animation will appear less than state-of-the art, and I do fear that one day Pixar may miscalculate and produce a critical and commercial failure. If they ever do, it will be because they lost their emphasis on storytelling craft and sense for timeless relevance.
WALL-E looks backwards in cinema history for inspiration to envision its grim distant future. WALL-E’s daily travails on an ecologically collapsed Earth resemble the desolate wastelands seen in such joyless apocalyptic downers as The Terminator and The Matrix. WALL-E is the lone survivor of his kind, dispassionately salvaging spare parts from his dead comrades. All this is potentially very scary stuff for kids, but the little guy has become charmingly eccentric over the course of his several-hundred year long mission, and his positive, can-do energy provides an amusing counterpoint to the dead world about him. Still, the themes of loneliness and environmental crisis are there for adults to plainly see and even the youngest viewers to pick up on.
Long before WALL-E, the camp sci-fi classic Logan’s Run supposed a future devolved humanity, reduced to a self-sustaining infantile state. Humanity imprisoned itself for the sake of survival, but the rational was long since forgotten and the closed system no longer unnecessary. It takes the rebellion of one free spirit to wake up the whole of society to the reality outside the walls of their enclosed womb (or tomb).
WALL-E draws its ecological metaphors and even the visual design of WALL-E himself from the classic hippie science-fiction film Silent Running. The last remnants of an overpopulated Earth’s biosphere are preserved in orbiting greenhouses, until venal corporations decide they are no longer necessary and are to be demolished. But one driven botanist and his team of cute gardening droids conspire to preserve a garden of eden forever, adrift in space, but a great cost: their rebellion is a bloody, murderous one.
The last major cinematic touchstone for WALL-E is, of course, 2001: A Space Odyssey. The visual design of the Buy ‘n’ Large ark carrying the remnants of humanity is all about the clean, white lines of Kubrick’s space station, and none of the filthy grunge that has dominated science fiction ever since Ridley Scott’s Nostromo in Alien (but Sigourney Weaver does provide the voice of the ship’s computer, perhaps finally finding vengeance against Alien‘s evil computer M.O.T.H.E.R.). WALL-E‘s chief villain is the droid AUTO, with the single, sinisterly unblinking red eye of HAL 9000. Both are artificial intelligences that stunt the evolutionary advancing of the human race in a twisted literal reading of their programming to protect it. Deleterious overprotection is also a theme in Andrew Stanton’s Finding Nemo; the Marlon learns that his prohibitive coddling of his son prevents him from blossoming.
But more than anything, WALL-E is a love story. If you think about it too much, you realize WALL-E is several hundred years old, and is thus rocking the cradle when he falls for the later model droid EVE. A pistol-packin’, short-tempered spitfire in the fine tradition of Princess Leia, EVE is so far advanced that she’s practically a different species of robot. Still, when WALL-E upends an entire society in stasis, he also awakens EVE to the joys of life.
Pixar has long had business ties to Apple, but this is the first film of theirs to make overt in-jokes. WALL-E has somehow rigged a vintage VHS cassette of Hello, Dolly! to play on an only slightly less vintage iPod. Apple’s resident industrial design genius Jonathan Ive reportedly consulted on the design of EVE. WALL-E’s startup sound is the classic Macintosh boot-up fanfare. The “evil” robot AUTO speaks with the voice of MacInTalk, the text-to-speech technology invented by Apple in the early 90s. Any one of these gags would have been cute, but taken as a whole, one suspects the Berlin wall between companies is breaking down, resulting in crass product placement.