One of the things that the geniuses over at Pixar do better than anyone else is to give life to inanimate objects. They did it first with *Toy Story*, imbuing toys with the personalities, emotions and souls that kids knew they had all along. They did it too with *Cars*, and they've done it again, and best, with *WALL-E*. I'll admit I'm a robot sympathizer -- the thought of little Mars Rover up there on the red planet, all alone while the lights go out, breaks my heart. But *WALL-E* just might make robot rights activists out of us all. Asimov knows where he can put his Three Laws of Robotics.
Wall-E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter - Earth-class) is a dented, rusty, steadfast little robot who performs the same task, day in, day out. His job is picking up trash, which he compacts into neat cubes, which he then stacks into spiraling skyscrapers. The trash is so deep it forms karsts and mountains, all but obscuring whatever natural features Wall-E's planet once had. As his name reveals, he performs this sisyphean task on Earth, 700 years in the future, when the planet is so hopelessly trashed that mankind has abandoned it to the cockroaches, and to one lonely little robot, the Mars Rover of Earth, Wall-E.
Amid all the trash, Wall-E finds treasures, artifacts of a lost civilization: Zippo lighters, egg beaters, an iPod, a beloved copy of *Hello Dolly!*, from which the little bot learns to dance, and to love. There's no one left to love except his faithful sidekick, a playful cockroach. Then a spaceship arrives and drops off a sleek, clean, egg-shaped robot named EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator). She's a curvy, streamlined beauty, although quite trigger happy, with a tendency to blow things up.
The first half of *WALL-E* is a charming, Chaplinesque lark with a melancholy darkness around the edges, and sweet, curious Wall-E at its heart, lightfooting around a bleak landscape, finding fun, beauty, art, and love amid the ruins. For a guy without a face, who speaks in bleeps, he's remarkably expressive and soulful -- and therein lies the genius of writer-director Andrew Stanton. It's one thing to breathe life into a doll that looks like a cowboy and sounds like Tom Hanks. It's another thing altogether to create a little person out of a rusty, dented, squeaky box of nuts and bolts, but like the replicants in *Bladerunner*, Wall-E is, it turns out, "more human than human." By the time Wall-E leaves Earth and finds humankind living on a massive intergalactic cruise ship, reduced to infantilized, technology-dependent blobs, it becomes apparent that the last bot on Earth was really the last man on Earth.
There are references aplenty to other dystopian sci-fi classics in *WALL-E*, including *2001: A Space Odyssey* and *Brazil*, but also to Chaplin's Little Tramp and especially *Modern Times*, to the lonely little bot on the moon in *Wallace and Gromit's A Grand Day Out*, and to the aforementioned *Hello Dolly!* *WALL-E* is awash in pop culture, sharing Wall-E's fascination with and affection for the culture and artifacts (some might say the trash) of late 20th and early 21st century human civilization. At the same time, the movie is a cautionary tale, following the human love of gadgetry to its logical conclusion: a world in which we are helpless to do anything -- even go to a movie -- without technological appendages (you know who you are, Mr. Answers-your-cellphone-during-the-movie). If our post-human future looks bleak, there's a ray of hope in little Wall-E. The movie is, after all, partly a sweet romance -- a heartwarming tale of how Wall-E woos and wins the heart of the new girl in town, a sophisticated beauty who is definitely out of his league. *WALL-E* also playfully explores a theme familiar in science fiction, and especially tales of sentient robots: the possibility of robot rebellion against technocratic repression. Can Wall-E and Eve transcend their programming and think for themselves, or are they hard-wired to follow orders? Do robots have free will? Finally, *WALL-E* is an ecological fable, a tale of a consumer society gone haywire, of a planet trashed by overconsumption and careless disposal, and of a species done in by the same, having evolved into lazy, blobbular couch potatoes who don't do anything but eat, talk, and follow orders to do more of the same.
*WALL-E* is a rousing, touching, sweet, funny, thought-provoking, thematically rich and complex film that gives you something to ponder while you're slurping your gallon of movie soda from the convenient armrest cupholder and munching on that mega-tub of movie popcorn -- was it really such a bargain to supersize it for fifty cents more? Can we, like our little robot friends, transcend our programming?