Thursday, May 21, 2009


When I was a kid in Baltimore, one of my favorite TV shows was a local offering called The Bob McAllister Show (yes, the same Bob McAllister who later became the host of Wonderama). In addition to the usual helping of cartoons, McAllister also featured live action sequences in which the star dressed up as a superhero and did various ridiculous superhero things. It was funny, in the broad, slapstick way of children's entertainment, but what I remember most the amount of time I spent trying to figure out how they did the special effects. Some were fairly easy — for the “flying” sequences, McAllister was simply strapped to a board on a truck and driven around, an gimmick any seven-year old could figure out — and some weren’t (who knew from blue screen at that age?), but overall it made for a significant formative experience. My curiosity about special effects had made me aware that storytelling was a process, and it could be just as interesting, and far more instructive, to focus on how a tale was being told than merely to follow the plot.

Whether this was the first step toward a career in criticism or simply reflected a natural predisposition to analysis is a chicken/egg question I’ll leave to others, but for whatever reason I can’t help but think about the things I listen to, look at, or read. And while that sometimes leads to understanding larger truths about a work, it can just as easily leave me irritated by questions about plausibility, logical consistency and the like. Instead of being intrigued by the mechanisms that facilitate the narrative, I’m distracted by the clanking of their machinery.

Which brings me to Wall-E, a Pixar feature many critics felt was one of last year’s best films. It’s not hard to see why; the film is visually sumptuous, consistently amusing, beautifully paced, and blessed with an appealing cast of characters. It even has a nice moral about the evils of materialism and mindless, endless consumption.

It just doesn’t make sense, is all.

Even if you ignore the way the story scales the whole of human existence down to one city and one spaceship, and accept the notion that robots not only have emotions but fall in love in accordance with heterosexual human norms, the film still asks its viewers to swallow a lot of absurdity. Some of that is simply the price of making the characters more appealing (read: human-like). For instance, there’s no reason a robot would flinch or shudder the way Wall-E does, but because those gestures telegraph emotion, they’re a useful tool for the writers to express Wall-E’s feelings. So we overlook them. There are also some elements that exists as exaggerations in the service of a larger point. Take the opening sequence, in which the camera pans across a city in which half the towering buildings turn out to be, upon closer examinations, huge piles of stacked, compressed garbage. As cartoons go, it makes a powerful image, but think about it for more than a second and it seems utterly implausible. If there really were that much garbage lying around this city, wouldn’t the streets have been several stories deep with trash? And if so, how could anyone living there have possibly made it to Buy N Large, much less to one of the massive space ships that shuttled humankind off the planet?

Still, there are other plot points that simply disregard logic. Start with the Axiom. We’re to imagine this spaceship as the ultimate luxury cruiser, offering robot-assisted entertainment and relaxation to all aboard. At a casual glance, it seems a reasonable product for Buy N Large to offer, but ask yourself: What’s the economic model here? If no one on the ship is creating income, who’s paying for everything? (And how, after seven centuries in space, could the ship still be producing tons of garbage every day? Is there some sort of matter-generating machine on board?) Even the basic social interaction seems implausible. For instance, there’s a touching sub-plot that arises after Wall-E inadvertently tears two passengers away from the all-encompassing video screens that have defined their soft, fat existence. Finally seeing the world around them, they meet and fall in love, which is apparently a novelty on the Axiom. Cute, sure, but if everyone is leading an isolated, electronically-assisted existence, where did the babies in that nursery come from? How could the ship’s population have continued for all those centuries? And, creepier still, why are there no old people or children, just infants and generic adults?

And so on. Of course, it’s not hard to find similar flaws in any other work of fantasy or speculative fiction; the variations on “there’s no sound in space” may be as infinite as space itself. In that sense, the real irony of Wall-E is that if the animation had been a more cartoon-y, I doubt I would have been bothered by half those things. Render a story in ink, with all the natural exaggerations and simplifications that come with the creations of pen and brush, and it’s amazing how easy it becomes to swallow all sorts of silliness, from interstellar railroads to galaxy-traversing battleships. Make it look real, however, and people will expect it to conform to the rules of reality. 

I can't believe you gave Rush's album "Signals" only 2 stars.
I can't believe you don't have the guts to sign your comment (or even the imagination to make up a name).
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