Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Wall-E

(There are spoilers galore here, so be warned.)

The last thing I'm going to do is try to make a message movie!
-Andrew Stanton

Andrew Stanton may not be trying to send a message, but that doesn't mean that it isn't there. Unfortunately, it overwhelms the main character and the message itself is only half-baked. The half that's there describes the problem; the missing half has to do with responsibility and offering a solution.

The film presents the audience with a monopoly capitalist economy gone mad. Buy N Large seems to be the only remaining business on the planet and it is so blind to the effects of its way of doing business that it finds it easier to transport its customers and system into space than to change its ways. The people who consume in this society are sheep. So long as they are entertained and distracted, they give no thought to the waste building up around them.

There is apparently no moral price to pay for this. The business isn't condemned for polluting the Earth and the consumers are not condemned for their willingness to attach themelves to the corporate teat. If the film has a villain, it's a ship's computer system that isn't flexible enough to deal with altered circumstances. Once the ship returns to Earth, there is no awareness of what got the humans into trouble in the first place or any plan for avoiding the problem in the future. No one takes responsibility, and that seems okay with Andrew Stanton. The humans get home, Wall-E gets a girl friend and that's all that seems to matter.

This isn't the first time that an animated feature has flirted with a message and then backed away from it. Chicken Run and Madagascar both deal with meat-eating as a threat but can't indict the meat-eating audience. Wall-E can't indict mindless consumption when Disney and Pixar are asking the audience to buy the DVD and whatever merchandise that this (and previous) movies have deposited on store shelves. When the point of a film is to generate profit, you can't expect the film to criticize the process by which the profit is made. That puts the film in an impossible situation.

And the strange thing is that it didn't have to be there. The film is called Wall-E, but the film seems to lose interest in him once the humans show up. The humans' situation overwhelms his love story, and the humans are not well-developed characters. The film abandons character for plot. Wall-E isn't even aware of what the plant means for the humans; he just wants to make sure Eve gets it, hoping that the gift will bring them closer emotionally. She also doesn't understand why it's important, simply that it's her prime directive.

That means there's a giant disconnect between the robots' and human's motivations. Had Wall-E understood the larger repercussions of the plant, at least the two stories would have been tied together. Instead they're separate and neither is particularly satisfying. Wall-E is treated as a child-like character, so his feelings for Eve can't go beyond the limits of puppy love. The humans have fouled their own nest and lack any initiative, so why should the audience care about them?

Science fiction requires that any novel ideas make sense, but there are big logic flaws in this film. If the Axiom's computers know that they've been directed not to return to Earth, why are they bothering to send the space probes there? What possible reason would the computers have for not notifying the humans that the Earth can't be rehabilitated? The humans seem totally satisfied on the ship, so what difference would it make?

Why, when the Axiom tilts, do people slide to the side? Either the ship has artificial gravity, in which case the people will be pulled towards the floors regardless of the ship's orientation (there is no 'up' in space), or the ship has no gravity, in which case the room would shift but the people would stay stationary.

It appears when two of the humans touch, it's a novel experience for them. So where do the babies on board come from?

If the ship disposal unit hurls tons of garbage into space, where does the ship get the raw material to keep manufacturing the crap that it sells to humans? Where are they getting all that rocket fuel for repeated probe trips, since there are several Eves on the probe mother ship and I assume that they've been sending probes for several hundred years?

A film that wants to be taken seriously has to do more than choose a serious subject. Wall-E flirts with big issues, but doesn't do them justice. The film is getting good reviews and will undoubtedly make money, but I found it to be a major disappointment.

26 comments:

Thad said...

I'm glad I'm not the only one who didn't like it.

Michael Sporn said...

You're, of course, spot on target. The film is so hollow that I couldn't IMAGINE working on it for two-three years.

The small story is as troubled as the big one. Wall-E has been on earth compacting for 700 years, but this is the first look he's gotten at a bra or a car's remote control. As long as you watch and don't think, you're ok. This is the same problem all films seem to have these days - live action AND animated. Can there be such a shortage of writers on out planet? Maybe we should look to outer space.

Blake said...

wow you guys are crazy, Wall was amazing! and if you would read a little deeper you would see that Stanton researched what would happen to people if they were in space for a extended period of time. Their would be major atrophy of your muscles. Which would make you end up being like the what the humans where in Wall E. It was way better than kung fu panda.

laughingwolf said...

story and continuity are prime, in my book... this seems to have neither

Gochris said...

I found the movie to be less than satisfying as well. Too frantic at the end. The film was very eager to please, and Stanton's very good at pleasing people!

As Mark says, the story brought up issues that it did not resolve. This is unusual for a Pixar film; normally they fully work out their themes. Brad Bird is especially good at this. He can be provacative and entertaining at the same time.

Wall-E reminded me of a Spielberg film from the 80's - very impressive, and trying to be profound, but when it has to cross the line from being entertainment to having something more to say, it loses its nerve.

Is humanity capable of avoiding the fate portrayed in Wall-E? What kinds of values do we need to embrace? Do we need to evolve? The film could have offered some ideas, but instead focused mainly on the romance.

I get the feeling that those moments were in the boards at some point, but were dropped. Somebody lost their nerve.

But you can't blame Pixar or Stanton really. The only mainstream film maker who could both shoot a movie and make it look as compellingly watchable as a Pixar or Spielberg film is Stanley Kubrick. (And Billy Wilder, but let's not complicate things.)

And in order for Kubrick to make films that were a hybrid of art AND entertainment, he had to leave Hollywood. Spielberg could have done it, but as I said before, he always stops short of actually saying anything - he's still too eager to please and loses his nerve. (Either that, or he really DOESN'T have anything new to say, but I'd prefer to think he just chooses not to.)

Stanton is capable of great things, and I hope in the future he doesn't rest on his ability to please people. I wonder if he's capable of shaking people up too? Is he capable of being provocative, even in a pleasing sort of Brad Bird way? Let's hope he tries.

Wall-E is an under achievement. Likeable, pleasing, but could have been so much more...

Neal Ellis said...

I think your analysis of the plot's weaknesses are very interesting; the disconnect between Wall-E's story and the humans is a strange structural break, and though it didn't really impact my enjoyment of the film, I do feel there could have been a better narrative climax.

Over analyzing the mechanics of the Axiom and the minute details of a sci-fi world is a little bit of a stretch, there are always bound to be some 'why can we hear the sounds if we're in space?' questions that really don't matter to an audience.

Wes Riojas said...

I enjoyed Wall-e. I would rather filmmakers keep their true agendas out of their films. If they had been more overt with their message, the movie would have bombed and the movie would become nothing more than a propaganda piece.

Pixar focus shoulb be entertaining us, not changing us. Our country is too divided for a movie's message to change social and political behavior. It simply divides us further and it kills the pure enjoyment of watching great animation.

Adam Pockaj said...

I liked it as a whole. It was fun to watch, it was entertaining, and I think that's the most important thing for a film. But there were definitely problems. One of the things that really bothered me (and I'm surprised no one mentioned it yet) was the use of live action. It was just...unsettling. It's like, why did they think that would be a good idea? Everyone in the theatre was like, "what the hell?" The portraits of the former captains in the ship's bridge seem to go from more realistic to the amorphous blob characters present in the film. Is that suggesting that live action humans evolved into cartoon characters? I really don't understand why they did that...

Chris said...

I was extremely disappointed with this film as well. And I very much WANTED to love it (and had been looking forward to it for months, since I'm such an overall fan of Pixar). My main concern (and one that Mark touched on) was the decision to sacrifice character for plot. This "plot over character" approach was not something that was present from the beginning of the film (which would have been tiresome but less painful) but instead, it occurred 20 minutes in... AFTER I had very much fallen in love with Wall-E. To create such a strong character, such a living character, with such a wonderful amount of inner life, and then throw him away in favour of something pointless is an extremely irresponsible thing to do to a character on the part of the writer/director/filmmaker. It is irresponsible not just to that character and his/her/its life (because if we are serious about storytelling, we MUST believe the characters we create are real), but it's irresponsible to the audience. It takes the bond that has been created between character and audience and essentially breaks its neck. This movie saddened me, not because it touched my heartstrings (which I very much wanted it to do) but because it stole Wall-E away from me and in his place gave me a pointless story involving pointless characters doing pointless things. I am only THIS upset, because a) how much I generally respect Pixar's product and b) how much I was really loving the character of Wall-E. I was actually angry during the movie, because they had taken Wall-E away from me.

Nate said...

Why weren't there any old people?

Racattack Force said...

I loved this film very much, but I later realized the same plot holes you brought about here. This film brings up many questions, but so little answers. But I still like this film though, despite these problems.

Allieep said...

I also was left rather unsatisfied by wall-e... I felt that it could end at any point in the film because the whole thing felt like a video game. Level 1: avoid being killed by Eve. Level 2: Save Eve. Level 3: Be saved BY Eve. And so on and so forth. The plot points were more like spurts and the climax was so abrupt and somehow... "unfeeling" that it didn't feel much like a climax at all. When I mentioned this to a few animation colleagues, they pointed out that Finding Nemo (my personal favorite) was similar in terms of minor quests. But at the same time, the minor quests in Finding Nemo (the sharks, the jellyfish, the turtles, the whale, etc) were more like obstacles. The main point of the entire film was a dad trying to find his son. If someone asked me what the main motivation of the characters, or "sum up the movie in one sentence", I couldn't properly do it. What WAS the ultimate goal? Yes, Wall-E and Eve's affections for each other was the main thing, but like you mentioned, the movie broke off into two disjointed segments: the humans and the romance. I didn't root for the humans. I didn't care if they went back to earth or not.

The whole movie felt off kilter, as beautiful visually and conceptually as it was. Several people told me it was the best Pixar film of them all, but I can think of at least 5 or 6 that surpass it in the story realm. That being said, despite my negativity, I still enjoyed it. It won't be in my collection any time soon and I know I will be forever villified amongst my peers as "the one who didn't think Wall-E was anything special" but it just wasn't up to par with Pixar's usual endearing, engaging films. :/

Mitch K said...

I agree with pretty much all of what you said (even the bit about the babies), but I think two of your points are rather nit-picky:

I don't see why anyone would consider the 'artificial gravity' of the ship. It seems unimportant, as the audience just accepts the fact that the ship is tilting. Why do they accept it? The ship, throughout the film, is pictured as being upright on the screen. The film doesn't say, "This ship has artificial gravity," the film tells the audience, "This ship is upright, just like the things you have on Earth. There is up and there is down, in space." That is the information that is visually given to the audience, and thus the fantasy rules in the movie are defined (even in contrary to how things would actually be in real life).

The problems in the movie come when the movie contradicts itself, like you have said. But so long as it contradicts reality, and defines it's own rules in which it sticks too, it's okay, and people accept it while watching.

Your other point that you have made, which I don't agree with, is the fact that the ship has a garbage disposal system. YES, they would need raw materials to keep creating their consumer goods, but the movie does not at all focus on that. At no time (that I can remember) in the movie does it focus on using or destroying raw resources. The movie solely focuses on the aftermath that is created by over-consumption ie: the production of too much garbage. The grand scale of the garbage, and the machines that have to take care of the garbage, drives home the fact that these people create too much trash.

I do, however, agree with everything else that you have said. The movie didn't pull any kind of emotional response from me. At the end (spoiler!) I actually wanted Wall-E to lose his memory permanently. I think I wanted to feel sad, or FEEL at all. I still think the ending would have been much better if he hadn't regained his memory.

What did you think about PRESTO, though?

Nate #2 said...

Why do so many people insist on breaking down animated features, and Hollywood movies in general, so logically. Do people move like puppets when you pull their hair? No. If you want realism, watch a Dardenne brothers film.

Obviously, there's a threshold where you want a film to stay grounded. For instance, the new Indiana Jones was so over-the-top that at about the half way point it just got stupid. But to bring up all of these nit-picking questions is beyond me.

In my opinion, Wall-E was more daring, creative, and interesting than any scene from Ratatouille.

Christopher Olson said...

I think one of the problems people have here is with the concept of a thinking-feeling machine. The question of whether a robot can have "emotions" or "feelings" has already been decided by the audience member before they even see the film, and there's nothing the storyteller can do to convince them otherwise. Thus, WALL-E and EVE's romance is just their programming playing itself out, and nothing more.

However, that's not the fault of the director for choosing to tell the story of a robot. I personally don't see the difference between WALL-E and Woody or Buzz from Toy Story, being inanimate objects. Does the fact that they can speak English, unlike WALL-E, make them any different?

On another note, I find a lot of science fiction in general to be somewhat 'alienating,' to use a bad pun. However, combine that alienating quality of science fiction in a fluid storytelling form like animation, which is usually bright and inviting and you get that 'hollow' feeling that Michael Sporn mentioned above...

Gordon said...

The Lion King had plot holes you could drive a truck through, too -- but somehow it managed to entertain and that seemed to overshadow all it flaws. The same seems to be working for Wall*E.

andrew osmond said...

I remember seeing a Wall-E trailer about a year ago which revealed the presence of the humans. I sighed internally and was sure it would spoil the film.

But when I saw the film itself, the humans' introduction didn't bother me in the slightest. This seems to be one of the key points where different viewers part company, but personally, I felt Wall-E and Eve were kept at the film's heart all the way, and any pro-ecology, anti-consumerist baggage was almost incidental.

As for the supposedly 'disconnected' plot, I felt there were more than enough connections, such as the beautiful 'Define dancing' sequence, in which five different characters (two pairs and a single) each discover joy. Given all the film's affectionate references to 2001: A Space Odyssey, I guess the writers believe in the viability of thematic links and reflections, without the need to tie it up all at the narrative level.

Some other complaints strike me as Hitchcockian 'refrigerator moment' quibbles, and several seem easy to rationalise. Yes, the 'Auto' computer's actions are inconsistent (e.g. telling the captain that Eve has found a plant in the first place!) but many SF supercomputers are sophisticated idiots, following incompatible demands (e.g. obeying the captain vs obeying some clearly hastily inserted secret instructions).

Re Michael Sporn's complaint, Wall-E may have been on Earth for 700 years, but for all we know, he may have evolved his curious personality in the last five years before the film starts...

But of course Wall-E doesn't pretend to be a serious SF scenario, any more than Bambi (whose rhythms I thought it echoed) was a serious tract on wildlife or hunting. And no, the 'love' story between Wall-E and Eve wasn't searingly psychologically acute, but I thought it hit the right narrative beats as well as, say, Grumpy's changing feelings for Snow White - and I found Wall-E's 'Norman Bates' montage when he's towing the deactived Ece around poignant and hilariously perverse.

patrick said...

Wall-E totally looks like the robot from "Short Circuit"... minus the cheesy 80's style of course

James said...

interesting comments.

i guess if you looking into the development of a film and pulling it apart to find out all the faults. makes me wonder why? knowing that this film is a cartoon, NOT REAL LIFE let go of your real world expections and enjoy the movie for what it is. unless your enjoyment comes from finding problems. and you get a kick out of getting it off your chest. im totally cool with it and i enjoy reading peoples problems with the what the see hear and eat. so thank you for entertaining me

by the way i did enjoy the film. i guess im one of lucky ones who can leave my critical mind at the door.

keep up the post

Lucas Martell said...

Good thoughts everyone. I had a similar discussion after I saw the movie the first time. Then, I went to see it again with a different set of people. The funny thing was, even though I was conscious of all the plot holes and some of the other things that people were complaining about, I still thoroughly enjoyed it the second time. Its really easy to pick things apart in retrospect, but when you're actually watching it, everything works. The only thing that pulled me out of the movie was the scene where Fred Willard and the animated captain were in the same scene.

Pete Emslie said...

"knowing that this film is a cartoon, NOT REAL LIFE let go of your real world expections and enjoy the movie for what it is. "

Actually, I think part of the problem is that the film is not really a cartoon in the true sense. The first half of the film, with its bits of live-action footage from "Hello Dolly" thrown into the mix, comes off more like a live-action film with CG special effects for the robots. In other words, not so very different looking from so many of the live-action sci-fi and fantasy movies of the last 15 to 20 years since the computer has taken top billing. Because of this, I too find myself assessing its plot more critically than if it were an all out animated cartoon.

The plot point that gave me the most trouble was the reason behind the gigantic space ark to transport people away from the trashed home planet. Why would the corporation, Buy 'n' Large have any interest in keeping their consumers going when those consumers have nothing to offer in return? They've evolved into big helpless blobs through overindulgence and lack of physical activity. It seems to me that the corporation would be only too happy either to re-inhabit earth or locate some new planet that can sustain life, just to get people up and working again as an economic society with money to spend for more goods.

Keeping earthlings alive for hundreds of years on a giant spaceship with nothing to gain from it actually sounds quite altruistic to me. Maybe Buy 'n Large is a noble institution after all!

Anonymous said...

I bet your a bundle of laughs on Christmas....... “sorry kids, Santa doesn’t actually exist”.

Anonymous said...

"I bet your a bundle of laughs on Christmas....... “sorry kids, Santa doesn’t actually exist”."

Yes, a person having a negative opinion on a movie you like OBVIOUSLY means that they are a person of poor character in real life. Why can no one have a differing opinion anymore without being the subject of a personal attack?

Benjamin De Schrijver said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Benjamin De Schrijver said...

The film finally was released here in Belgium, and after all the negative reviews from people I usually agree with, I was a bit afraid. But I was pleasantly surprised, and can only conclude that those people seemed to have taken the wrong conclusions.

The film is not based on an pro-ecology message. The only reason people think that is because it's a hot topic right now, and they're scared about the current ecology themselves, not because the film mentions it. There were FAR FAR FAR more signs towards a different theme, which is to stop (or beware of) living your life as a robot and learn to enjoy it more.

The story revolves around a robot who has, over time, developed a personality. The final scene of the movie makes clear that this wasn't initial programming... this was probably some intellegence designed into the robot to be able to learn from past actions (which is why he learned about relationships through the movie footage). Meanwhile, the human race is living like mindless drones, living in their own little universe (figuratively and litteraly), not really enjoying it, stuck in a rut. The few that get kicked out of their chairs by Wall-E suddenly notice the beauty and fun around them and in eachother. Where's the ecology in enjoying life on a spaceship, and appreciating the beauty of a view of two robots twirling through space? Where's the ecologic message in discovering what dancing is? In splashing around water? In touching eachother? The little plant represented a bit of hope, it represented seeing the glass half full, seeing the good thing in all, knowing that whatever happens, there's always a possibility of enjoying and appreciating the world around you. The plant represented life. Not ecological life, but the life that's about living, not just survival.
Buy 'n' Large isn't the "villain" in the story because it's not about the fact that it made so much trash. The scenery around the CEO made clear that BnL wás basically Earth, and the CEO was the president/leader of the planet. They send people out in space doing nothing because BnL wasn't about money (anymore). So the movie is not about showing us we have to stop buying things cause we'll pollute the planet. No, BnL became the leader of the world by the people's choice. What it's saying is that we have to watch out to let (material) things control/rule our lives. That we shouldn't give it too much power over ourselves. The way the fat people's lives took place behind a screen and that they only talked to eachother through a screen was a clear reference to that we should make sure we don't just see what the world is like on youtube, and that we don't lose real human contact with eachother by having all our communication through e-mail, chat, texting, or whatever. Real human contact, and real human experience, that's what matters to the movie. The films obsession with the touching of hands isn't just because it's cute.

Wall-E is a story about the human race living their lives so much like mindless robots, that it takes a robot who developped a personality to shake them out of it. If a real robot can, in time, develop a personality and a love for life and the "people" around him, and then transfer that feeling to another robot, surely the humans, who became like robots, can learn to do the same again?

Wasn't it obvious when the cleaning robot jumped out of its tracks? Wasn't it obvious when the film celebrated all the so-called malfunctioning or rogue robots, that DID seem to have personalities? When all the previously mindless robots were so curious about the waving gesture of Wall-E? When the love interest was called EVE, as in Adam & Eve, who basically represent human LIFE? Wasn't it enough of a sign that calling the villain of the movie "Autopilot" means we should beware of living our lives too much on autopilot?

Do you really think that the credit sequence was just a fun idea, having art show the human race rebuilding their society? No, the choice of going through the history of art wasn't just because it looks good and gave them some 2D to do... it's because the very act of making art is an act of appreciation of the world around you. If you want to represent something, you have to really look at it. The credits isn't just about rebuilding society, it's - as was the whole movie - about rediscovering an apreciation of the world around us. And it's also a rediscovering of creativity, something else that goes missing when living like a drone, and something else Wall-E learned to have.

Where's the ecology in that? I honestly think that the people reading into the so-called preachy ecologic message are so afraid of something like that happening to us (even in an exponentionally smaller way), that they put too much importance in that part of the movie, and forget to look at what the movie is really about, and the way all the pieces in the movie DO connect.

Now, I don't think it's a masterpiece. It has its share of flaws and plotholes, and I don't consider it Pixar's best. But it's a charming, unique and really funny film, told in an honest way, so I had a very good time at the movies. I'm actually glad that it got these negative reviews, because when I saw the first teasers, I expected a masterpiece. Now that my expectations were lowered, I had the most wonderful time at the movies. But now I do feel it's been awfully mispresented by many people.

hanum said...

nice movie, good animation technology used.