Thursday, July 10, 2008

New Film: WALL·E

The latest from Pixar, the most consistently rewarding of the present-day Hollywood studios, WALL·E both manifests its production company's greatest strengths, namely a striking process-oriented, formal intelligence and a clearly proscribed point-of-view, while presenting a line of argumentation that is by any measure inconsistent. WALL·E is nothing short of an artistic indulgence, in the Reformation-era Roman Catholic sense, made to atone for the sins that it will commit by virtue of its hyphenate co-producer Disney's marketing strategies. Like the codified latter-day practice of giving to off-set one's carbon footprint, a twenty-first century indulgence to be sure, WALL·E's anti-consumerist screed is a rhetorical propitiation for the prominence of its action figures on Wal-Mart endcaps everywhere. Whither an Environmentalist reformation? Who will be its Martin Luther to the Environmental movement's private jet-papist Al Gore?

Writer-director Andrew Stanton's (Finding Nemo, 2003) WALL·E opens eight hundred years into a dystopian future, wherein the earth has been depopulated save for a super-resilient insect and the squat, eponymous robot (pictured above), whose programmed function is to compact and stack - in skyscraper form - the planet's (read: America's) seemingly bottom-less sea of waste. After an introduction to the robot's gleaner's instinct and his lonely bachelor love of Hello, Dolly!, we are introduced to the Apple™-inspired EVE, Pixar's latest sexy new toy - even if she lacks the threat of replacement embodied by Toy Story's Buzz Lightyear (co-scripted by Stanton). EVE, as we will shortly learn, has been dispatched to search for organic life on the once green planet, which she finds among her new robotic suitor's collected treasures. With her discovery, EVE is summoned back to the mother ship, that is, to an enormous space vessel, the Axiom, that has preserved human life beyond our atmosphere for the previous five and seven-hundred years.

Prior to EVE's return, with WALL·E predictably stowing away, the bulk of Stanton's picture occurs without dialogue - as many critics have rightly noted, this is indeed an exceptionally experimental narrative device for an animated work. The exceptions occur on the level of WALL·E's attempts at anthropomorphic utterances - the iconic instance (at least for those who have seen the film's trailer) is his incorrectly accented "Wall-e" - EVE's (still limited) later model speech and most conspicuously, a televised spot from retail powerhouse "Buy and Large," with an on-screen Fred Willard narrating.

The fact that
WALL·E presents actual human beings within the frame of its computer-animated narrative is of no minor significance. This is a film that is making a greater claim for its plausibility than any of its Pixar fore-bearers. WALL·E does not represent a parallel world where for instance monsters generate a city's power by scaring its children (Monsters, Inc., Pete Docter, 2oo1) or where a family of superheroes are forced under cover (The Incredibles, Brad Bird, 2004); rather WALL·E is this world, hundreds of years from now, when our massive Bush-era consumption has left the earth uninhabitable. The form of Stanton's picture is in other words less parable than it is cautionary tale; rats (Ratatouille, Bird, 2007) will never become great chefs but our consumer habits might just imperil the planet's future, the filmmakers' argue. This linking between commerce and environmental degradation, it is worth noting further, makes explicit the prevailing anti-capitalist bias inherent within the modern Environmentalist movement.

Outside the earth's atmosphere, amid the black expanse and violet solar systems that combine to create WALL·E's most visually striking spaces, the aforesaid vessel houses the fattened, static remnants of human civilization, now confined to floating, mobile chairs with their ubiquitous television screens that forever shield their eyes from the rest of the ship, let alone from the cosmos beyond. (When their flat screens malfunction, two separate passengers express surprise that the shuttle contains a pool, which naturally figures prominently in the Axiom's floor plan.) The human figures themselves remain plastic and relatively lifeless when contrasted with the inorganic robotic figures that this inorganic medium successfully anthropomorphizes.

Of course, their reliance upon televisual images marks yet another of WALL·E's prominent inconsistencies. As if it were necessary to remind Stanton and company, WALL·E is after all a work of visual culture, which as it happens has blinded the film's obese human subjects from each other and the world around them, to say nothing of softening their minds to the point that the Captain is required to ask what farming is, and later to explain it to his fellow travelers. It is likewise a children's film in the Disney-Pixar stable, meaning that its introduction into the world of consumption will be followed naturally by scores and scores of cute new toys, which let us be reminded, is precisely what got us into the place we are when WALL·E commences. WALL·E is in other words both disease and cure; an extraordinary moneymaker for its filmmakers' that deigns to critique the very activity that it participates in. If the system allows for it, why not act as both prophet and parasite?

In the end, WALL·E's proscriptions emerge as more measured than many of its diagnoses. The very notion of moderation is by no means controversial, nor is that of stewardship, though its conceit of a fragile biosphere - in contrast to the resiliency of its automated protagonists - remains open to debate. Less modest, however, are the film's closing credits that trace the history of Western art from the Egyptians through Van Gogh, while figuring the renewal that the film's conclusion stipulates. Here, still another Pixar artist has made a claim for his medium's role among the arts, though unlike Bird's Ratatouille which claims that a non-human can create an art worth savoring, Stanton seems to imply that his is the next step in the storied tradition into which he has inserted his robotic figures. Presumably this is great art - an art for the ages - because of its (presumably, again) unassailable politics. WALL·E is nothing if not ambitious.

In many respects this is what is most commendable about both WALL·E and latter-day Pixar filmmaking more broadly. From Toy Story to The Incredibles and Ratatouille to WALL·E, Pixar has introduced a set of auteurist filmmakers within the form of computer animation, and each with their own distinctive point-of-view. John Lasseter's (Toy Story and Cars, 2006) is a cinema of nostalgia, Bird's of a Randian advocacy of excellence and now Stanton's an anti-capitalist, orthodox Environmentalist animated film practice. (Stanton's has naturally connected with the left-leaning critical apparatus in excess of any of his esteemed antecedents.) Moreover, WALL·E manages the texture of subjective film art, or at least of an empathetic filmmaking, with its shy, nerdy protagonist, frequently fixing his viewfinders like slipping spectacles. Whatever one's feeling might be about WALL·E's politics or about the inconsistencies that threaten its rhetorical heft, Stanton does manage to continue his inhuman format's remarkable, sustained propensity to create in the first-person. Stanton is, in other words, one more distinctive voice in Pixar's polyphonic factory.


Benakribo said...

very nice film .. indeed . i love his sound :)

Anonymous said...

I just rewatched this, and thought you might like to know Michael that at the veery end of the film, after the credits and even after the second Pixar logo, Buy n Large's (the fictional company of the film) logo plays. There's certainly a self-aware nod there to its hypocrisy, if you want to call it that.

I also find the closing credit sequence of note. They simultaneously trace fine art as you said, and seemingly the process of visualising an animated film (various kinds of typical storyboarding, I mean), and finally, little 8-bit renderings of the characters populate the rolling credits -the earliest of videogame design. Digital art is thus left for last.