April 13, 2010
 

Wall-E & Eva Win MadAve

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Philip K. Dick's prophetic novel, "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?," written in 1968, is set in San Francisco in a post-nuclear winter. (Dick placed it in 1992, though printings of the book after 1982 change the year to 2019 to agree with the movie's time frame.) Radioactive fallout--a heavy layer of dust--has covered much of America following World War Terminus, forcing a migration to the West Coast and then to "off-world colonization," an exit strategy to other, habitable planets. Most residents have left by rocket, leaving behind their furniture and belongings. Everything is rotting. Dick calls it "kipple." The remaining residents keep animal androids in settings that no longer can support plantings or gardens. Deckerd, the SFPD detective, lives in a ConApt (what would be a condo today) and tends his electric sheep on the roof of his building.

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"Blade Runner," Ridley Scott's 1982 filming, opens pushing in on the industrial slagheap that is Los Angeles. The air is thick with smoke, and flames, perhaps fires, bellow up. Most people who can afford it have migrated to off-world colonies, or live high up in 200-story buildings. Floating blimps passing Deckerd's windows advertise outer-space residences on huge jumbotrons powered by millions of light-emitting diodes (LEDs).

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Pixar's "Wall-E," directed by Andrew Stanton, is the first post-apocalyptic film created for a children's audience. Like "Blade Runner," it opens pushing in on another devastated metropolis, though the city is generic and the destruction is more catastrophic. The dominant advertiser in the culture appears to have been Buy N Large, which operated stores, institutions and mass transit--all in ruins and rotting. Ferocious dust storms are frequent. Everyone alive has been transmitted by rocket to the Axiom mothership, a floating space-city owned, operated and staffed by Buy N Large. The same kind of floating advertisements--voice-overed by what sounds like the same announcer in "Blade Runner"--keep shilling the good life on Axiom.

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The only visible moving object on earth, whose job is to clean up civilization's final messes, is a little robot named Wall-E. Accompanied by a tiny bug, Wall-E dutifully compacts neat cubes of debris and rolls home at night to a protected shed full of 20th century artifacts from the ruins. (including one old shoe filled with dirt and one surviving green sprout). Wall-E puts on a videotape of "Hello Dolly" and runs one scene over and over. It's Barbra Streisand and Michael Crawford singing "It Only Takes A Moment" with these important lyrics by Jerry Herman:

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The audience in even the most packed theater watching and listening to this is now very quiet. Little Wall-E is lonely. Every child is paying close attention. A large spaceship descends to the deserted terrain, and a small, white robot is placed on the ground. This is Eva, and in appearance, facial planes and color she is a tiny version of Gort, the all-powerful robot that visited Washington D.C. with its human host, Klaatu (Michael Rennie) in the 1951 sci-fi classic, "The Day The Earth Stood Still." They came to warn earth's leading scientists to stop atomic testing or face annihilation. Eva doesn't have that agenda, even though like Gort she packs a lethal disintegrator ray. She will become Wall-E's friend, and after she checks for vegetation and returns by spaceship to the Axiom world, Wall-E tags along.

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It isn't hard to remember that Buy N Large caters everything on Axiom, for its entire multi-racial population of adults and children is overweight and virtually inert. The controlling force is a wheel with a pulsing red light, and in case you don't immediately get the connection with Hal 9000, the computer in Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey," the familiar "Also Sprach Zarathustra" music theme from "2001" will cue you. "Wall-E" is full of tributes and references to the films its creators grew up with the picture's second half works at getting Wall-E, Eva and the Axiom folks back to an earth that appears to be greening up from that one little sprout in the shoe. (This is reminiscent of the conclusion of the 1952 film, "When Worlds Collide," and particularly the novels by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer, "When Worlds Collide" and "After Worlds Collide.")

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With the population looking forward to reestablishing roots on terra firma, Wall-E and Eva face each other and discover--through a touch of armatures and a brushing of faces--that, as the song says, "it only took a moment to be loved a whole life long." Wall-E's broad, expressive face and cola-bottle eyes may suddenly remind you of the moments you unashamedly wept at "E.T.'s" embrace of Eliot in a darkened movie theater almost a quarter of a century ago. As Philip K. Dick made clear in his late 60s novel of electric sheep, without our humanity, we are nothing.

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You may have read of Los Angeles realtor Sonny Astani's plans (NY Times, 5/21/08) to create horizontal diode blades, like venetian blinds, on 10-story facades on several 30-story residential towers in downtown LA. Anchored by the Staples Center and L.A. Live, and already known as Times Square West, these buildings with their animated billboards draw inspiration from "Blade Runner" and from the T-Mobile headquarters in Bonn, Germany, which has similar LED blades. Syd Mead, who worked as a visual effects artist and futurist on "Blade Runner," is quoted as not being surprised that the movie has inspired builders. "I've called science fiction 'reality ahead of schedule,'" notes Mead.

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You may also be aware of the Virgin Galactic space flights (at $200,000 a seat) being planned by Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. The launch of Space Ship Two, holding six passengers and two pilots, from a California site is now scheduled for 2009-10. One ultimate goal may be to establish a satellite station hotel in deep space for overnight stays. Over 200 initial reservations have been sold at $200,000 a pop, which kind of makes your $20 multiplex ticket, soft drink and popcorn seem like chump change.

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"Wall-E" is a haunting, magical film that treats Buy N Large as a kind of omniscient, irritating but not evil marketing empire. The film is refreshingly free of product placements and cross-marketing, except for the Mac boot tone that gets Wall-E going in the mornings and the name Eva/Eve (Electronic Vegetation Evaluation) which is a subtle Apple bow. As a bonus, the feature film is preceded by what has become an anticipated treat in Pixar releases, a splendid cartoon. "Presto" is a French magician who mercilessly withholds a carrot from his faithful rabbit, who systematically and hilariously destroys the magician's act until he gets that carrot. "Presto" is a joy for the funny bone, and "Wall-E" is, by and large, a keeper for the heart.

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