WALL-E isn’t the first time we’ve seen a deserted Earth in a film, but it might be the best such depiction, as well as possibly the most unique (and realistic) reason for said desertion. In the not-so-distant future, our consumerism produces so much garbage that it takes over the planet, forcing drastic cleanup measures to be taken. Such measures include the entirety of the Earth’s population boarding massive ships, the largest of which is called the Axiom, upon which they will live for 5 years’ time while Waste Allocation Load Lifters (Earth class), or WALL-Es, compact and stack all of the trash that is covering the planet’s surface. Of course no plan of this sort is ever allowed to go off without a hitch, and as the film opens we find that there is only a single functioning WALL-E left, still dutifully going about its day-to-day task of compacting trash, one cubic foot at a time.
The first half hour or so of WALL-E is, without a doubt, the most impressive computer animation seen to date. The abandoned planet’s vistas are beautiful and haunting at the same time, and the charm with which the little robot goes about its business is more touching than I’d ever imagined an animated character could be. He even seems to develop a personality of his own (as movie robots always seem to do), and collects odd knick-knacks for himself that he finds amongst the trash. This, again, is handled with such a charm and a gracefully delicate characterization that the audience doesn’t question why, in developing a trash-compacting machine, WALL-E’s creators would program him with the ability to form attachments and be sentimental in the first place (unless said audience contains me, I suppose). WALL-E develops such emotion, in fact, that he comes to desire—by watching a VHS tape that he has somehow rigged up through an iPod—to experience love as he sees it portrayed in Hello, Dolly!
The attentive reader will at this point note that even this humble reviewer, who tends to be more jaded than the average bear, has quickly made the transition from referring to the last WALL-E robot on earth as a machine to referring to it using human pronouns. Such is the effectiveness with which Pixar portrays a protagonist, as we’ve seen in all of their previous works. Even the most heartless of audience members cannot help but feel for poor little WALL-E, so lonely by himself on that great big abandoned planet, and all he wants is for someone to love.
Luckily just such a “someone” comes soon enough, in the form of an Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator (EVE), sent back from the Axiom to search for the existence of plant life, um… terrestrially (but hey, even I’ll give them that “EVE” is a much better name for a robotic love interest than “TVE”… it’d still be nice if it weren’t so obviously contrived, though). In another fit of unexplainable programming, EVE is designed to immediately blow away anything she detects moving with her massively powerful laser cannon. It seems to me that something sent to search for proof of life would want to preserve any life it finds, but maybe that’s the 21st-century programmer in me talking—I’d probably never make it in the future, at least not as a robotic AI programmer. This design decision makes for a rocky introduction between WALL-E and EVE, but nonetheless results in love at first sight for the little garbage crusher.
WALL-E manages to follow EVE back to the Axiom, and we are presented with the stark contrast of worlds that this film hinges itself upon. Whereas Earth is dark, gloomy, and photorealistically rendered, the Axiom is bright, smooth, and cartoonish. WALL-E, a product of Earth, is dull and dirty and appears sort of cobbled together; Eve, sent from the Axiom, is pure white and smooth (both in her surface and voice), the product of an incredible design (her arms and head, for instance, are not actually connected to her body; instead they simply float in place, just as her body itself floats about the ground). Perhaps the greatest contrast of all, though, is in how the human characters are portrayed: on Earth, the CEO of the Buy-N-Large corporation that we are led to believe is responsible for the massive consumerism and pollution that drives the humans from the planet in the first place is played by Fred Willard, in the flesh. In contrast, the captain of the Axiom is a rotund computer-generated cartoon, comically voiced by Jeff Garlin. Stylistically, this is an effective device. In practice I tend to think that it is taken a bit too far, even considering such measures as a brief explanation (by Willard’s character) of the humans’ changing appearance over the years. There is a really nice dichotomy, nonetheless, between seeing EVE’s sleak form on the jagged Earth compared to WALL-E leaving a trail of dirt everywhere he rolls on the pristine Axiom.
What really disappointed me, though, about this technique is the change in tone that goes along with the change in setting and corresponding change in style. The movie starts out fairly dark and bleak, portraying a robot stuck in its routine well beyond the point of futility, not unlike what should’ve been the actual ending of A.I. (where David gets stuck in an endless loop, praying to the Blue Fairy to make him into a real boy). There is then an abridged transition of sorts, where WALL-E’s humanesque qualities lighten the mood via standard feature animation devices, such as his cockroach sidekick and his general penchant for cuteness. Once aboard the Axiom, the mood becomes much more silly, and we suddenly find ourselves in the storyline of every other Pixar film, wherein the primary gang of lovable characters (oh yeah, WALL-E and EVE happen to find themselves a gang of lovable robots) ends up being chased by a big scary faceless baddy, and hijinx ensue along the way. This is all done with Pixar’s usual high aptitude, and the movie ends on a nice feel-good note, but it all feels a bit generic after the originality and ability with which the film’s first act is handled.
Beyond being one of the most beautifully-rendered computer generated films ever seen, and one of the most interesting and fully-realized visions of a deserted planet ever seen, WALL-E might also be the most homage-paying movie ever seen, too—and the science fiction genre is fond of homages. The Axiom’s autopilot is characterized by a large, round red eye, in an obvious reference to HAL 9000 from 2001, for instance. I also found the people of Axiom, who live their lives floating around in easy chairs, to be quite reminiscent of the Golgafrinchans from Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide books (particularly their captain, who spends the entirety of their 3-year voyage in a bathtub). And WALL-E himself seems like the product of an unholy coupling of Johnny Five from Short Circuit with R2-D2 from Star Wars. In fact, I felt that all of this was taken a bit too far, and instead of being an original movie filled with clever little homages to the greats of the genre, it started to feel like a derivative mish-mash; the fact that as the film progresses the plot gets more generic doesn’t help in this regard, either.
WALL-E is a pretty good movie, probably Pixar’s best to date. It’s not quite the groundbreaking achievement it feels like it could’ve been, though. On the other hand, it could very easily be seen as a groundbreaking achievement in animation technology. I do feel that no discussion of this movie can be complete without giving special mention to Ben Burtt, the venerable sound designer who’s been in the business a long time and has produced some of the most iconic sounds in movies over the past 30-plus years, from back when he first mixed the sound of a lion roaring with other animal noises to teach audiences what a Wookiee sounds like, to providing the voice for WALL-E himself. Hats off to him, and hats off to the rest of those involved with this movie for the exceedingly high production value it exhibits. If only they went a bit deeper with the story, and perhaps toned down the references and overly-stylized contrast of settings just a bit, they might’ve truly had a magnificent film on their hands.