Poor little robot has a rich story
LATELY, from my window at work I’ve been looking down on a demolition site, watching a jackhammer trundle around on its motorised treads, its great steel spike nuzzling coyly against slabs of concrete like the beak of some randy, inquisitive bird.
From a distance, the machine seems to have a life of its own, and I wonder if I’ve been seeing too many films from the Disney- Pixar people. In their latest, the main character is a rusty little robot resembling a pair of binoculars perched on a metal box. He’s a lot cuter than my jackhammer, but not essentially different.
Cute robots have been a familiar presence in movies since the first Star Wars film ( an earlier, more sinister variant appeared in the MGM fantasy The Forbidden Planet in 1956), but never has a robot looked so engaging as little WALL- E, the creation of writer- director Andrew Stanton. The letters stand for Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth- Class, and for 700 years he has been working ceaselessly, and alone, to clean up the rubbish left behind by profligate humans when they abandoned the planet in 2110.
These early scenes, with their eerie, surreal beauty, are like nothing I’ve seen in an animated film. WALL- E works silently — no dialogue is heard, only his little grunts and chirping sounds — and I realised I wasn’t even sure how to pronounce his name. Wally? Wall- ee? Whale?
Stacks of compressed junk rise like huge, barnacled skyscrapers in the misty, still- polluted air. Occasionally WALL- E finds an object that takes his fancy — a Rubik’s cube or a light bulb — and adds it to a small collection. Resting in his ramshackle quarters, he watches replays of Hello, Dolly and suspects there is a whole class of experience ( love? emotion?) denied to hardworking robots.
It seems that back in 2110 a giant corporation, Buy n Large, having colonised global markets and buried the landscape in consumerist junk, led a mass exodus from the planet. Millions of earthlings now live on an orbiting space resort, a haven of self- indulgent pleasure piloted by an obese commander ( voiced by Jeff Garlin), who spends his days in idle luxury with his passengers. The resort is controlled by Auto, a programmed robot with a secret mission, and served by a computer ( Sigourney Weaver) who, like all spaceship computers, has a mind of her own.
Can WALL- E restore life to our deserted world? He is surprised one day by a visit from EVE, an Extra- terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator ( Elissa Knight), a robot whose blue eyes and girlish giggle quickly win his heart. EVE discovers a tiny remnant of plant life amid the hectares of rubble and returns it safely, with WALL- E, to the mother ship. But plans for a mass repatriation of the Earth’s surviving population are resisted by the devious Auto. From here on the film feels more like a conventional action adventure, but Stanton and his team deliver many moments of ironic humour and imaginative power.
It’s a film that taps into prevailing fears: environmental disaster, rampant consumption, unbridled capitalism, a sense of futility and loss even in the midst of plenty. In the US, conservative voices have branded it left- wing propaganda. But its themes of cosmic loneliness and human vulnerability have been explored in some of the greatest science fiction fantasies: 2001: A Space Odyssey , Blade Runner and the Alien films.
WALL- E has its share of ingratiating gimmickry and cuteness. But Stanton’s achievement has been to weld the conventions of popular animated storytelling to ideas of great daring and some importance. The result is a rich and provocative work of art that manages to be fun.
* * * an Australian gangster film set in Sydney in the 1920s, has been made with great style. The press notes include a statement by writer- director Jonathan Ogilvie: ‘‘ The 1920s setting is an iconic representation of a decade rather than an attempt at historical accuracy. This gives a simultaneous sense of past and present to both story and character.’’
It may also be said to give a simultaneous sense of confusion and incoherence, especially when Hugo Weaving’s character sings jazz age arrangements of Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan songs. And it may take more than the odd image of a half- completed Harbour Bridge or old copies of The Daily Telegraph to disguise that the film was shot in Melbourne.
I’ve seen The Tender Hook described as a comedy- thriller. But the comedy is in short supply and there aren’t too many thrills. Instead we are given a great deal of self- conscious atmosphere, punctuated by episodes of sadism.
Yet in a creepy way it’s all quite watchable, thanks to Weaving’s hypnotically unpleasant performance as McHeath, a cold- blooded racketeer of English origin who gets about with his disconsolate mistress Iris ( Rose Byrne) in a chauffeur- driven Rolls. One night, from her ringside seat in the stadium, Iris finds herself attracted to a good- looking boxer, Art ( Matt le Nevez), and under McHeath’s increasingly suspicious gaze begins an affair.
Ogilvie is so captivated by his sense of moody style that he forgets to drive the story forward. True, there are charming conceits. We discover quite early, for example, that McHeath can’t read the titles on old boxing newsreels, and the knowledge that this polished, menacing fellow is illiterate gives a piquant flavour to his later scene with Iris when he coaches her in bed on points of Shakespearean diction.
Byrne gives a fine, edgy study of pampered discontent and the film’s surface is constantly beguiling. The film promises much. But while, like Art, it displays some clever footwork, it never quite delivers the knock- out punch I was hoping for.
Eerie, surreal beauty: A scene from WALL- E , which taps into fears of an environmental disaster created by rampant consumerism