June 30th, 2008

Ashi no tomodachi

Robots in Our Hearts

I did see Wall-E yesterday, and I absolutely loved it. Just a really sweet movie, and you know a movie's got you when bits that blatantly defy logic, like suggesting someone can make a machine work harder by pressing a button really hard, aren't distracting. In fact, the tension keeps right along. And you could attribute this to characters who've fully engrossed you or direction that successfully lays down tracks in semblance of our common modes of processing thought, but it's probably something far less definable. It just worked, it was Disney magic, in a good way, thank the gods, for once.

Oh, I'm selling it short. How can I really tell you, though, about how this movie celebrates love and turns you into a goo monster that makes you want to envelope it and digest it forever? I couldn't really say it without cheapening it. I cried. Several times, plus times where I was repressing it for the kids around me, most of whom were mercifully quiet, except a little girl to my left who, at the beginning, insisted on asking her mother questions as though her mother had written the screenplay ("What's that?" "I don't know yet, Honey." "Why's he doing that?" "I don't know, Honey."). Most people, I think, acknowledge the wisdom of teaching a child not to interrupt while people are talking, but I think it might be just as valuable to teach them not to interrupt while movies are talking.

People started leaving the theatre as the end credits began, and I have no idea how. The credits sequence featured partially animated artwork suggesting the story of life following the movie's events, and even the normally plain scroll of white text with black background featured 8-bit sprite-looking versions of the film's characters re-enacting bits from the film, which was an important clue as to the reasons for the film's impact, particularly to people who were young nerds in the 1980s. I'd thought a few other people'd stayed with me, but when the lights came up, I saw that it was only theatre staff, waiting to clean. One bemused young lady among them wished me a good night.

Anyway, I left the theatre on shaky legs, but I had a lot of walking to do, and I did ruminate on some of the film's nuts and bolts. I saw from the credits that sound effects and the voices of the robots were the work of Ben Burtt, which didn't surprise me in the slightest. Best known for his work in the Star Wars movies, his stuff is distinctive and interesting even in the two prequels I didn't like. And Eve strongly reminded me of the midwife droid in the prequel I did like.

There's something Star Wars-sh about the appearance of much of the Wall-E robots, too. Though Wall-E himself, as I won't be the first to point out, actually somewhat resembles Number 5 from the 1986 movie Short Circuit, a resemblance Wall-E director Andrew Stanton puts down to subconscious influence. But I think it's more useful to see Wall-E not as a descendent of Number 5 so much as a sort of breed of 1980s robot, as his appearance also brings to mind R.O.B., an accessory for the original Nintendo Entertainment System, and the "goose droids" from Star Tours. Wall-E is curiously associated with 1980s technology in other ways, too; his chest features big record and playback buttons resembling those on a tape recorder owned by many a child of the 1980s and his inspiration to love, the movie Hello Dolly, is viewed via a VHS tape.

Whether it was consciously intended to be or not, I think Wall-E could be seen as a hero from the 1980s come to save our souls in the 2000s. Or, more precisely, a hero from 1980s childhood, when love and life seemed simpler and friendlier, before the complex and dangerous implications of political and social trends became clear. Wall-E collects items that matter to him, and it's fine and innocent. But the latter portion of the movie sees him confronting humanity that has become gross and self-destructive with a lust for accumulation. I don't think Wall-E's message is that having things is bad. Rather, I think the message is, "pursue and keep only the things that matter." I've said before I think there's a bitter reaction in society lately against the inclination to act on emotion, and that I think this is understandable when we see the consequences of a president who makes decisions based on his "gut". Wall-E reminds us that it's not emotions that are good or bad, but how you use them. And that the heart is something to be valued, because it's the only reason anything has value.

The relationship between Wall-E and Eve is so wonderful and sweet. It's hard for me to not see the possibly unintentional symbolism, but it doesn't detract from their story in the slightest; Eve is an egg shaped robot to whom Wall-E, after baring his soul to her in the form of his prized possessions and favourite movie, lastly shows her a plant, which Eve takes into herself before going silent. Wall-E is inseminator and by sharing the things that are precious to him, the tone of intimacy is conveyed, and Eve's strange transformation afterwards feels sort of like the aftermath of an awkward but extremely affectionate sexual encounter. The miracle of Eve eventually valuing the affection as much as Wall-E does despite her well-portrayed extremely different perspective is exactly the best part of this movie. All the precarious antics of fragile robots and the slim hope of propagation of organic life are shades of this central, tenuous and sweet story of love.
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