I've been waffling back and forth on whether or not to write this column ever since I saw WALL-E two weeks ago. That here it is, two weeks later, and I'm still hearing a specific criticism leveled at the movie that is just plain factually wrong, that two weeks later some people are deeply angry at this movie for something that isn't actually on the screen and I keep running into this people, has tipped me off of the fence on this one. This journal entry is aimed at people who (a) haven't seen the movie yet, and (b) have read multiple reviews of it, and (c) are, based on the reviews, so angry that they're not going to see the movie. It may also be of some interest to some of you who did see the movie, completely misunderstood what you saw, and are angry at a movie only exists in your head, that isn't the movie that was up on the screen.
For what it's worth, this isn't the first time I've seen this problem. The main reason that one of my all-time favorite movies, Pleasantville, didn't make more money than it did is that they all showed up expecting one movie (a movie adaptation of "Hi, Honey, I'm Home!"), saw another (a morally complex metaphor about whether or not we'd be better off with more innocence or if we're better off with "the knowledge of good and evil," and what if we could choose?), and didn't switch gears fast enough. The same thing happened to me with 300; I went expecting one movie (a Hollywood-ized super-hero version of the battle of Thermopylae), saw another (a live action version of Heavy Metal), and almost didn't switch gears fast enough to enjoy it. Although I haven't gotten out to see it yet, I gather that the same problem has happened to most critics and audiences who saw Hancock. They showed up expecting a comic romp about a drunken bum with super powers, had it turn into an elaborate metaphysical debate over which you'd choose, to have the power to help thousands of people, or to be happy, if you had to choose, and didn't switch gears fast enough, either. And so it is with WALL-E, because nearly every hostile review of WALL-E I've read says the same thing. They all loved the first one third of the movie, but they all complain that there's a major plot twist after that that ruins the whole movie for them. Some of them have gotten quite angry about it. And just as with Pleasantville, 300, and Hancock, I insist that what they're objecting to is a movie that they imagined, that they projected their own neuroses onto, not the one that Pixar made and is showing.
Those of you who've read the hostile reviews, tracked down the spoiler sites, or seen the movie and gotten angry at it, you all know what happens at the 1/3rd point in the movie. WALL-E and EVE travel to the Axiom, a space-going "ark" containing the descendants of the wealthiest survivors of the ecological collapse on Earth; now that EVE has returned with proof that life without life support is possible on the surface of the Earth again, it's time for the human race to begin coming home. And what everybody who gets angry at this movie (except for a few far right-wing nutcases) gets angry about is what we find on board the Axiom, what the human race has become. After 700 years of having their every need tended to by robots, of eating all of their "food" through straws, and of never moving anywhere except via hover-chair (and where each generation comes from if nobody can move out of their chairs, we're not told, unless the robots handle that for them, too), all of the surviving members of the human race have become seriously, seriously fat.
And that's what drove untold thousands of people psycho: the portrayal of all Americans (because whether or not there are other space arks, we are shown that everybody on the Axiom is descended from Americans) as so morbidly obese that they're helpless. Because as everybody knows, human beings only come in one of two shapes: fat, or virtuous. Everybody knows that since everybody around you wants you not to be fat, and since everybody (mistakenly) "knows" that "all" it would take for you not to be fat is to exert minimal self-control and go to some minimal effort to please other people, that means that if you are fat, then you must have no regard for anybody else. And if you have no regard for anybody else, and don't care what other people think of you or want from you, then you obviously must not have any virtues at all. Right? And the fat-acceptance activists, who think that the movie they think they saw or that they heard about without seeing perpetuates these beliefs and mocks the lazy fat people to their faces on the screen, are just as histrionically angry at Pixar as the rest of the country is over the implication that 700 years from now, there won't be even one single American left in the whole human race who cares enough about other people to bother to be skinny.
If that's the movie you're afraid you're going to see if you go? Ignore the rest of this review and go see it, on my word, and if you still think so, come back and read the rest.
If that's the movie you think you saw? You weren't paying attention. It's not just my imagination; there were other critics (I saw at least a couple over at Pandagon) who spotted something that the directors did very, very deliberately, and did at least three times: they very carefully intercut scenes of the adults on the Axiom with scenes of babies in swaddling clothes. Further, when the ceremonial captain of the Axiom has to stand up and walk to save his passengers from a robotic mutiny, his gait is very obviously modeled on any baby's first steps. Knowing that, go back and look at the passengers on the Axiom, and its captain. No double chins. No belly-fat doubled over and overlapping their waists. No skin problems. Completely spherical heads. Almost completely spherical hands and feet with tiny little fingers that don't meet. The message of that part of WALL-E is not "capitalism will make you ugly and lazy and fat." Heck, watch the passengers; they do everything that the ubiquitous robots will let them do, and then complain that there isn't more for them to do. No, the message of that part of WALL-E is that having other people do everything for you, having them cheerfully and immediately cater to your every need, is not corrupting, it's infantalizing. And life, real human life, began for you the first time you rejected help and did something yourself.
You don't even have to project any kind of moral flaw onto the passengers of the Axiom to explain why it came to this. Remember that at least as far as their ancestors know, they may well be the last survivors of the human species, and they're on a lifeboat. Damned straight they did everything they were told by the machines. That's just basic lifeboat survival 101: obey the chain of command, hope that the person in charge knows what orders to give. If you think otherwise, you need to read more case studies of people surviving under lifeboat conditions: the minute everybody starts figuring out for themselves what to do, they start working at cross purposes, and unless help arrives really, really fast, they all die. So when Auto Pilot decided, and instructed everybody through the Steward bots, that it would be safer for the human race if they let the robots do all the work, do everything, since the robots don't make mistakes and endanger the species? Heck yes they obeyed. They come by their seven hundred years of neoteny through no vice, through no lack of virtue, but entirely honestly. They are not to be blamed for having let themselves be infantalized, they are to be praised for recognizing, even when their robotic "parents" didn't, that WALL-E and EVE had brought them proof that it was time for them to begin to grow up.