Thursday, July 10, 2008

Movie Review: WALL-E

“A man is alienated if he refuses to transcend himself and to live the experience of selfgiving and of the formation of an authentic human community oriented towards his final destiny, which is God. A society is alienated if its forms of social organization, production and consumption make it more difficult to offer this gift of self and to establish this solidarity between people” (Centesimus Annus 41).

Perhaps the most captivating image of the 20th Century comes from the great “space race” of the 1960s, when astronauts sent back to earth for the first time images of our planet from “beyond.” This “global” view of earth – a thin line of atmosphere hung delicately around a blue and green orb, wreathed in clouds and set against the stark black emptiness of space – continues to captivate our minds and imaginations. It fosters recognition of the fragility of earthly existence and the smallness of man within the grand scheme. A haunting quote from Carl Sagan in response to these images captures the import ideally: "Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark."

Loneliness, along with the struggle to overcome it, is the central theme behind Pixar’s latest (and greatest) triumph, WALL-E.

WARNING: Some spoilers below!

In the opening scenes, the camera pans through a trash-filled atmosphere to reveal an earth covered in waste stacked sky-scraper high. The planet has been abandoned, though only until it can be sufficiently “cleaned-up” by the series of droids called Waste Allocation Load Lifters – Earth Class. But only one of these remains. He, the last functioning of the entire fleet, has been alone perhaps for centuries, with only a cockroach to keep him company; and, we find, his personality has blossomed into one of insatiable curiosity and wonder at all of the things earth’s former occupants threw away. This is, after all, his primary mission: even before load lifting, WALL-E focuses on the allocation of waste.

Thus, WALL-E has become an eccentric collector. All of the things which humans took for granted are a wonder and a novelty to him: a rubick’s cube, a spork, the hinged box from a diamond ring (the ring itself he discards, finding rather dull). The commodity which interests him most, however, is relationship. Watching an old VHS tape of Gene Kelly’s Hello Dolly, he wonders at the dancing and love songs. He clasps his metallic hands together, and looks off into space, wishing for another’s grasp as the prize for his collection.

A cynic might find all this sentimental nonsense. But there is a richness to this story beneath the surface. When I forced a friend of mine to see the film, he complained of having no interest in a “love story between a couple of robots.” But the final moral import of the film is not about robots at all – or, not in the sense that he thought. The robotic creatures from the annals of science fiction at the real center of this film are those freakish oddities known as human beings: those complex machines built by God for freedom, but rebuilt by man for imposed “directives” from which they break only with great difficulty.

The rich imagery and insinuation of WALL-E could never be covered in a single review. From the opening scene, as the song Put On Your Sunday Clothes rings out into the loneliness surrounding earth, any viewer steeped in saccharine Americana (such as this reviewer) would recognize a deliberate allusion. The banner song of Hello, Dolly calls to mind the story based on Thorton Wilder’s play, Matchmaker, about a woman who gives people “directives” towards relationships which they follow with robotic docility – but the whole conflict of that play arises when humanity’s self-directing will and the monstrous reality of love emerges as more important than any external “directive.” The true maker of this machine has built in His own instructions...

There is a deep significance about the fact that WALL-E, enamored of all that we humans take for granted and throw away, is especially interested in love and relationship. The implication is that human socialization and community is our most precious commodity; yet, we have felt it boring and cast it aside like all our other junk. I don’t remember when it occurred to me that WALL-E’s “suitable companion,” when she finally arrives from the heavens, has the evocative name “EVE.” When finally the epiphany did sink in, I reflected immediately upon the gut feeling which had plagued me for the first 20 minutes of the film: that “it was not good for [WALL-E] to be alone....”

When finally we see humans in the film, we find that they are each isolated in a fantasy world of technology aboard the great starship AXIOM. The vessel’s name smacks of complacency, platitude, banality, and conformity. The first living human characters portrayed are two men coasting side-by-side about on their hoverchairs, having a conversation via video-phone rather than face-to-face, about what virtual sport they’d like to simulate.

WALL-E’s will to community sparks disruption aboard the ship and begins to break down the walls alienating its occupants. Darker themes emerge: man versus machine; the struggle against complacency and apathy. In order to regain the ship, the human passengers must battle the atrophy of their minds and bodies. The robotic mutineer autopilot urges the Captain that “Aboard the AXIOM, they will survive.” The Captain’s impassioned response: “I don’t want to survive! I want to live!

WALL-E’s message is a timely one for our day. If the political currents in the media tend to distort the central focus of the film and cause its ecological themes to overpower its more important facets, this is truly regrettable. Ultimately, the environmental elements of the movie serve simply as examples of the whole gamut of “goods” which we are wont to waste. The miracle of every burning star, the daily rising of the sun, and the growth of each new plant: these great surprises stand alongside other smaller wonders in WALL-E’s panorama of collectibles: our many gadgets and gizmos, zoodads and Zippos. And then there are the greatest novelties of all: the human things: singing and dancing, running and jumping, hand-holding and kissing.

Chesterton said the world will never suffer for want of wonders, but rather for want of Wonder. In our lack of Wonder we have trashed the daily miracles with which God litters our world; God willingly squanders His goodness upon us, and in our refusal to Wonder at it, we turn it into literal refuse. The greatest waste of all is ourselves: the one thing which we should squander away freely, we waste by preserving in a vault. He has willed that we not remain alone; but we have willed that we do.

Here, floating in space aboard the “lonely speck,” where our wonders have become our waste, and we squander only our Wonder rather than our wealth, we need to re-allocate. We need help in digging out and cleaning up the mess. Well, help has arrived: WALL-E is on the job.

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