Poor lit­tle robot has a rich story

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - Evan Wil­liams

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

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