Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Another inconvenient movie

Seems a robot can’t even look for love 800 years in the future without drawing the scorn of the right wing right now. That’s the early message being sent by some protesting the new Walt Disney/Pixar movie “Wall-E,” which opened Friday. Many of the criticisms put a political spin on what is clearly an environmental message, but in an election year when phrases like “cap and trade” and “carbon credit” are working their way into the popular lexicon, complaints like that ring hollow when the truth is reflected in the mirror of fiction.

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The film’s background: It’s around the year 2100. The Buy N’Large corporation has essentially remade Earth in its image, so much so that our blue-green planet is not a place to come to, but a place to get away from, a vast and ecumenical holding company* that's more a factory than a planet.

In a frantic bid to keep its customer base of humanity alive, Buy 'n Large offers the earthbound residency in space, aboard several spaceships (dubbed “starliners”). Back on earth, millions of waste-disposal units (acronymed WALL-E) perform the role of trash compactors for earth, sweeping up after the human parade has moved on.

Fast forward 700 years. It’s 2805, and there’s only one WALL-E still working.

EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator), a robot from one of the earth-escape ships, arrives on Earth, where she meets that last Wall-E in the world. A love story is born.

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Conservatives weren’t having any.

“Godforsaken dreck,” said Shannen Coffin in the National Review. “From the first moment of the film, my kids were bombarded with leftist propaganda about the evils of mankind.”

Kyle Smith, author and columnist for the New York Post, mouthpiece of media Cyclops Rupert Murdoch, condemned the film for depicting humans in the future as “a flabby mass of peabrained idiots who are literally too fat to walk. Instead they zip around in flying wheelchairs surfing the Web, chatting on phone lines and stuffing their faces with food meant to be sucked down like milkshakes while unquestioningly taking orders from the master corporation that controls all aspects of their existence. … I'm also not sure I've ever seen a major corporation spend so much money to issue an insult to its customers.”

Frederica Mathews-Green, an NPR contributor writing in the National Review Online (in a counter to its conservative bent), said “the film succeeds in making an ecological statement without being annoying […]”

In the “beautiful-but-thin” production, she says, “Wall-E” has achieved a visual power at the expense of a plot [“(are his eyes maybe a little too pathetic — like a kitten in an alley in the rain?”) she asks], but finds passages of the film “surprisingly, delicately, effectively, poignant […]”.

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Leave it to Lars Larson, Oregon radio talk-show host and cable-TV’s special pleader on the matter, to boil down the objection of those on the right:

“We’re talking about a movie that foists off on little kids the idea that human beings are bad for planet Earth, and that’s not true,” Larson said Tuesday on MSNBC’s “Verdict With Dan Abrams.” “I think people should understand, if you take your kids to see this … they’re going to come away with the idea that mommy and daddy are bad for the planet. …”

While it may not be true for “mommy and daddy” specifically, someone should tell Larson: Human beings are bad for planet Earth!

Human beings are even bad for human beings. Speculating on our species in the year 2805, the director, Andrew Stanton, outlined the world view that animated his creation of “Wall-E” at Comic-Con 2007. For human beings, it ain’t pretty.

“…[H]umanity is in a sorry state. You see, the star-liners were basically futuristic cruise ships with technology so advanced that all of their basic needs were met by service robots that could self repair themselves and work around the clock 24/7. Their long-term residency in space have caused their bones to sort of atrophy. So bone loss and instant gratification has caused us to turn into couch-potato blobs.”

From global warming to chaotic weather disruptions to an ice cap seemingly shrinking by the day, the assaults on the planet by Humanity Inc. are a matter of common knowledge, and (slowly, almost glacially) common populist action. The earth’s condition is our fault. Or maybe Larson thinks we should look into the carbon footprint of that elephant on the African savannah. Perhaps he’s personally seen animals driving SUVs on freeways in the Amazon.

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Setting aside the intrinsic silliness of his statement, Larson’s apparent astonishment suggests he needs to see more movies. If he did, he’d know that “Wall-E” is hardly the first major feature film to posit a world in ecological disarray. “Quintet” (1979) the coldly-reviewed Robert Altman science-fiction film starring Paul Newman and Bibi Andersson, takes place in a frozen future world, an environmental nightmare where city dwellers amuse themselves with a board game played in deadly earnest.

In “Blade Runner,” Ridley Scott’s 1982 masterpiece, residents of Los Angeles in the year 2019 are bombarded by airship ads offering homes off the planet: “A new life awaits you in the Off-World colonies. The chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure.”

And “Soylent Green” (1973), Richard Fleischer's dystopic vision that has held up remarkably well over the years, an overpopulated world faces food shortages, famine-related violence and, ultimately, the discovery that the one reliable food source consists of … some of the people inhabiting that overpopulated world.

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Irony of ironies: An animated movie may do as much to affect people deeply about the environment as an Oscar-winning environmental documentary did. For all its authority and high-profile launch into the culture, “An Inconvenient Truth” (2006), the controversial Al Gore-presented film, has the didactic, lecture-hall underpinnings of a classic documentary.

For all its plotline paucity and gigabyte gimmickry, “Wall-E” has resonated with moviegoers because it’s a Story. Sampling from the pop-cultural buffet, building a plate with everything from “Star Wars” to the Book of Genesis, “Wall-E” succeeds because it connects emotionally, with a narrative we recognize, with characters whose “mechanical” aspects don’t obscure the flesh-and-blood experience of longing and love.

For some, the fact that some of that emotionalism is hard-wired to the planet we live on — a love story of literally global proportions — makes “Wall-E” a political issue, an inconvenient movie arriving at the wrong time.

For the rest of us, there’s a movie with a message with a heart and a sense of what we are, what we may be becoming and what we want to be. Movies like that may be inconvenient, even uncomfortable, but they are hardly unnecessary.
Image credits: Wall-E poster: ©2008 Walt Disney/Pixar. Soylent Green poster: ©1973, 2008 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. An Inconvenient Truth poster ©2006 Paramount Classics. * Paddy Chayefsky, “Network.”

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