This movie has been designated a Critic's Pick by the film reviewers of The New York Times.
By A. O. SCOTT
Published: June 27, 2008
The first 40 minutes or so of “Wall-E”- in which barely any dialogue is spoken, and almost no human figures appear on screen - is a cinematic poem of such wit and beauty that its darker implications may take a while to sink in. The scene is an intricately rendered city, bristling with skyscrapers but bereft of any inhabitants apart from a battered, industrious robot and his loyal cockroach sidekick. Hazy, dust-filtered sunlight illuminates a landscape of eerie, post-apocalyptic silence. This is a world without people, you might say without animation, though it teems with evidence of past life.
We’ve grown accustomed to expecting surprises from Pixar, but “Wall-E” surely breaks new ground. It gives us a G-rated, computer-generated cartoon vision of our own potential extinction. It’s not the only film lately to engage this somber theme. As the earth heats up, the vanishing of humanity has become something of a hot topic, a preoccupation shared by directors like Steven Spielberg (“A.I.”), Francis Lawrence (“I Am Legend”), M. Night Shyamalan (“The Happening”) and Werner Herzog. In his recent documentary “Encounters at the End of the World” Mr. Herzog muses that “the human presence on this planet is not really sustainable,” a sentiment that is voiced, almost verbatim, in the second half of “Wall-E.” When the whimsical techies at Pixar and a moody German auteur are sending out the same message, it may be time to pay attention.
Not that “Wall-E” is all gloom and doom. It is, undoubtedly, an earnest (though far from simplistic) ecological parable, but it is also a disarmingly sweet and simple love story, Chaplinesque in its emotional purity. On another level entirely it’s a bit of a sci-fi geek-fest, alluding to everything from “2001” and the “Alien” pictures (via a Sigourney Weaver voice cameo) to “Wallace and Gromit: A Grand Day Out.” But the movie it refers to most insistently and overtly is, of all things, “Hello, Dolly!,” a worn videotape that serves as the title character’s instruction manual in matters of choreography and romance.
That old, half-forgotten musical, with its Jerry Herman lyrics crooned by, among others, Louis Armstrong, is also among Wall-E’s mementos of, well, us. He is a dented little workhorse who, having outlasted his planned obsolescence, spends his days in the Sisyphean, mechanical labor of gathering and compacting garbage. His name is an acronym for Waste Allocation Load Lifter- Earth Class. But not everything he finds is trash to Wall-E. In the rusty metal hulk where he and the cockroach take shelter from dust storms, he keeps a carefully sorted collection of treasures, including Zippo lighters, nuts and bolts, and a Rubik’s Cube.
Wall-E’s tender regard for the material artifacts of a lost civilization is understandable. After all, he too is a product of human ingenuity. And the genius of “Wall-E,” which was directed by the Pixar mainstay Andrew Stanton, who wrote the screenplay with Jim Reardon, lies in its notion that creativity and self-destruction are sides of the same coin. The human species was driven off its home planet - Wall-E eventually learns that we did not die out - by an economy consecrated to the manufacture and consumption of ever more stuff. But some of that stuff turned out to be useful, interesting, and precious. And some of it may even possess something like a soul.
Observing Wall-E’s surroundings, the audience gleans that, in some bygone time, a conglomerate called BnL (for “Buy N Large”) filled the earth with megastores and tons of garbage. Eventually the corporation loaded its valued customers onto a space station (captained by Jeff Garlin), where they have evolved into fat, lazy leisure addicts serviced by a new generation of specialized machines. One of these, a research probe named Eve (all of the robot names are acronyms as well as indicators of theoretical gender) drops to Earth and wins Wall-E’s heart.
Their courtship follows some familiar patterns. If “Wall-E” were a romantic comedy, it would be about a humble garbageman who falls for a supermodel who also happens to be a top scientist with a knack for marksmanship. (I’m pretty sure I reviewed that a while back, but the title escapes me.) Wall-E is a boxy machine of the old school, with creaks and clanks and visible rivets, his surface pocked with dents and patches of rust. He is steadfast, but not always clever or cool. Eve, shaped like an elongated egg, is as cool as the next iPhone and whisper quiet, unless she’s excited, in which case she has a tendency to blow things up. She and Wall-E communicate in chirps and beeps that occasionally coalesce into words. Somehow their expressions - of desire, irritation, indifference, devotion and anxiety, all arranged in delicate counterpoint - achieve an otherworldly eloquence.
That they are endowed with such rich humanity is as much a Pixar trademark as the painstakingly modeled surfaces or the classical virtual camerawork and editing. The technical resourcefulness that allows “Wall-E” to leap effortlessly from the derelict Earth to the pristine atmosphere of the space station is matched by the rigorous integrity the filmmakers bring to the characters and the themes.
Rather than turn a tale of environmental cataclysm into a scolding, self-satisfied lecture, Mr. Stanton shows his awareness of the contradictions inherent in using the medium of popular cinema to advance a critique of corporate consumer culture. The residents of the space station, accustomed to being tended by industrious robots, have grown to resemble giant babies, with soft faces, rounded torsos and stubby, weak limbs. Consumer capitalism, anticipating every possible need and swaddling its subjects in convenience, is an infantilizing force. But as they cruise around on reclining chairs, eyes fixed on video screens, taking in calories from straws sticking out of giant cups, these overgrown space babies also look like moviegoers at a multiplex.
They’re us, in other words. And like us, they’re not all bad. The paradox at the heart of “Wall-E” is that the drive to invent new things and improve the old ones - to buy and sell and make and collect - creates the potential for disaster and also the possible path away from it. Or, put another way, some of the same impulses that fill the world of “Wall-E” - our world - with junk can also fill it with art.