WALL-E Redux: Thoughts on a Second Viewing

Tonight was movie night at my grandparents' retirement community, and the selection met with skepticism from the older crowd:  "WALL-E?"  "What does that even mean?"  "I haven't heard of it."  "It is about the future?" "Like science fiction?"  "Hmmm."  "Wait - it's animated?  Hmmmmmm."  "Is it for children?"

After several iterations of this conversation in which I tried - animatedly - to champion the brilliance of the film, I decided to accept my grandmother's invitation to join them for what would be my second viewing.  That way I could witness the reception firsthand.

Now I know that Wall-E is so 2008, and we have all stopped thinking about how sublime it was on a daily basis, but here are a few thoughts that occurred anew to me while watching it tonight.

  • Poor, neurotic WALL-E.  He is the antithesis of the alpha hero of romance.  This is a sort of hero I would like to read about more often - one whose appeal is entirely in his bumbling individuality, and who becomes ever more clumsy the more besotted he is.  The charm of this romantic trope is that it feels truer to life than the suave, take-charge model of heroism, who (I can't help but think) is much more frequently seen in practiced womanizers than in the genuinely love-struck.  Love raises the stakes, and thus it makes us less competent than we might normally be at everyday social and physical interactions.  Thus WALL-E can barely take a step as he courts Eve without toppling gigantic pyramids of stacked piping.  It is his irrepressible enthusiasm that charms, not his polish.
  • Oh, Eve. Or as WALL-E knows her - Eee-vah.  What a kick-ass heroine you are.  I love the gender politics of this robot amour.  He is the neurotic, timid-but-enduring eccentric, and she is the type-A, trigger-happy, careerist directive-obsessive.  His devotion (and creaky obsolescence) delights but also perplexes and embarrasses her.  His is the winning character, the one who earns our affection, but hers is the dynamic one, making her in a sense the protagonist of the film.  She is the one who develops, the one with a character arc - she must learn how to reconcile her directive, her programming, her stated purpose in existing, with her love for WALL-E.  In less canny hands, this could have gone very quickly in an anti-feminist direction - love is the imperative, blindly following your career is narrow and selfish! - but we can't forget that her directive involves saving the world.  She is right to be torn.  And WALL-E's love takes the form of wanting to do anything that will help her fulfill her purpose.  And while we're at it, let's not forget that she is the muscle in the relationship - WALL-E does his share of Buster Keatonesque rescuing, but it is Eve who mostly rides in at the crucial moment to save his fragile self from peril.  Go, Eee-vah: never stop blowing stuff up with your Apple-designed iArms.
  • So, as Eve's dilemma shows us, this is a film that is keenly interested in the ethics of mission (or programming, nature, vocation - to ring the changes on this theme).  Is it right to abandon (or diverge from) your calling?  Many of the moments that address this issue are surprisingly complex.  Consider, for instance, obsessive-compulsive cleansing-bot MO: at one point he is traveling along the path on the floor that marks the parameters of his duty, when he encounters a divergent track of "foreign contaminant" leading off into the distance.  What is a bot to do, faced with the choice between the letter and the spirit of his programmed law?  Naturally he takes the road less traveled, true to his identity but not to his scripted duty. But this choice requires a physical wrench - he has to tear himself violently from his well-worn path.
  • This is possibly the only EVER climactic love scene that involves a cockroach climbing ecstatically over the lovers.
  • Speaking of the cockroach, it seems clear to me that the people at Pixar sat around late one Friday night, watching Hello, Dolly, thinking about the nature of love and loss, and saying to each other, "Let's lay bets about what the most skin-crawlingly disgusting creature is that we can make absolutely adorable."  Or maybe they had just been reading a bit too much Kafka.  Next Pixar mega-hit?  The Trial.
  • The final credits: awesome.  Did I realize last time I saw the film that they not only tell the story of how the characters resettle the Earth but also do so in the form of highlights from the history of art, starting with ancient Egyptian tomb paintings and Roman mosaics and culminating in Van Gogh's swirls and primitive video game animations?  Backwards and forwards, all at once.
  • I wondered again about the debate surrounding the representation of humans in the film, which some critics at the time claimed was misanthropic.  The residents of the Axiom are indeed unflatteringly ungainly.  This is a result, we are told, of declines in bone density over 700 years of micro-gravity, although the implication is that a life spent sucking down "nutritional" shakes ("Cupcake in a Cup!") while in a permanent state of hypermediated Roman recline may also have played a part.  But, in contrast to so many other dystopian visions of the future, this is an essentially optimistic portrait of humanity (and, well, machinery).  As soon as they are jolted out of their tv- and slurpee-induced daze, their first instincts are warm and charitable - they connect with WALL-E and each other, they delight in their surroundings, they want to save babies from a thorough squishing when the ship reels off its rigidly programmed kilter.  Nature red in tooth and claw this isn't: this is a world so profoundly benevolent that even the robo-villain is motivated only by a desire to fulfill its duty and ensure the comfortable survival of humanity.  Its failing is that it chooses letter over spirit, failing to see that vaster ideals like love and home trump the virtue of adherence to a plan.
I wondered what the reception would be from this audience, whose average age I was single-handedly dragging down to about 70. (The first time I saw it was on the big screen in Los Angeles itself, where I am bound to say that the film's cinephile elements played very differently.)  "The special effects were very impressive," my grandfather concluded, "But I don't know about all those enormous people on the space ship."  "It should have been a half hour shorter," a friend said firmly, to a chorus of affirmative murmurs.  "Well," I replied, "Critical consensus is that the first thirty minutes of the film are its strongest and most revolutionary, while the part of the film on the space ship is quite a bit more conventional.  But, after all," I felt honor-bound to add, "it was only, um, a ninety minute film."  I mean, it wasn't exactly Intolerance.

My grandmother adored it, however.  "The imagination," she said, in awed tones, when the credits had just started rolling, "How could anyone have the imagination to make something like this?".

And she was more than a little smitten by WALL-E as a Don Juan, I think: "Their courtship was so well done.  When La Vie en Rose played under it, I couldn't help but remember the first time I heard it - in 1951, at a rooftop party in Beirut...."

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