Random thoughts on most things from A. M. Craig.

Monday, December 15, 2008


One term paper down, a couple more and a couple tests to go.

To hold you over till I can start blogging again, here is the paper I wrote analyzing and comparing WALL•E and *batteries not included.

Lovable Little Tin Men

The permutations of science fiction are almost as many as the branches of actual scientific study. There are experiments gone wrong, time travel, alternate history , post apocalyptical, cyber-punk, steam-punk, hard, soft, and the tried and true space adventure, just to name a few. These sub-genres intersect and overlap with themselves and other genres altogether, and they’ll continue to do so until their conventions are entirely absorbed by fresher forms. I’ll be discussing and analyzing a specific subset in the sci-fi realm, but isn’t found on the shelf of the sci-fi isle in your local video rental store. While the uncanny, inhuman, slimy space alien may be the norm for much of sci-fi, I’ll be looking at the family friendly lovable little robot who could, found in both WALL•E and *batteries not included.

Pixar’s WALL•E follows the diminutive sole survivor from a fleet of clean-up robots, meant to make the world livable again after hyper-consumerism leaves the landscape a trash laden wasteland. His role is made clear to us very early on, with opening shots of the towering trash heaps, and our protagonist dutifully rolling around, compacting all the detritus. But this worn rust box is surprisingly likable. He exhibits curiosity, playfulness, and kindness. He collects whatever interests him from the piles left by Earth’s former inhabitants, things as quirky as sporks, lawn gnomes, and Rubik’s cubes. He sings and dances to Hello Dolly! on VHS cassette. He has a panic when he thinks he’s literally run over his one and only friend in the world, his cockroach sidekick. He even shows some romanticism before the romantic interest is even introduced, as he gazes longingly at the stars. He is, in fact, everything a good person would aim to be.

In 1987 a similar set of characters were introduced. Steven Spielberg produced *batteries not included, but it was a then unknown screen writer who provided one of the most tangible real-world links to the 2008 hit WALL•E. Brad Bird must have some affinity for robots. With almost half of his writing credits featuring a remarkable robot somewhere in the story, it shouldn’t be surprising to see his name in the writing credits of *batteries not included. WALL•E was written and directed by Andrew Stanton, but Bird’s The Incredibles came out only a few short years before from the very same studio.

*batteries not included centers around a decaying apartment complex in New York City. The tenants are few, most having been bribed or otherwise coerced into moving. Those left include an aged couple. The husband manages a diner on the ground floor. His wife’s dementia makes it all the more difficult for him maintain his own sanity. There is also a retired and mostly mute heavyweight boxer, a poor artist, and a single mother-to-be. By themselves, they seem only a minor obstacle for a big time real estate developer and his hired thugs, who plan to erect a series of skyscrapers in the very same spot. It’s only a matter of days before their brick home (and whole world) is leveled to make way for modern glass and steel obelisks.

Then drops from the sky, with no explanation, two of the most unlikely saviors. In true deus ex machina fashion, two tiny alien robots come to start a family and save the defenseless of New York. They manage to scare away the thugs, enliven the almost defeated tenants, and ultimately rebuild the entire structure from rubble. Throughout all this, they teach the tenants (and the audience) a thing or two about family, children, and love.

Wait, family, children, and love? We are talking about space alien robots, right?

What separates *batteries not included and WALL•E from their contemporaries in sci-fi is their family centered nature. They are more than simply family friendly films, though they certainly lack any offensive content. Each is a family centered film thematically, despite having as the central character what on the surface would seem the least lovable, least human thing imaginable; a cold hunk of metal.

First things first, how is a little piece of almost mute metal so likable? Nobody in reality has any particular love for their toaster, why should we care for a trash-compactor on wheels? Or why should we care about flying saucers outside of an academic interest? Normally, we wouldn’t. But animators and special effects artists have done an effective job of approximating the most lovable thing around, children and babies. Our robots mimic their behavior, with each robot moving dynamically and sometimes unpredictably, with lights adding to their movement, and most importantly, by having expressive eyes. When you put eyes on that toaster, you have the beginnings of a Disney classic, evidenced by The Brave Little Toaster, also from 1987.

For these characters, the eyes are less for them to see than for us to see them. Scott McCloud argues in Understanding Comics that we as humans not only see ourselves in everything around us, but we often can’t help but see ourselves. This is undeniably the situation whenever something has what we perceive as eyes. Whether it’s an electrical outlet or a potato, it instantly becomes recognizable as an individual entity once it has eyes.

A Yiddish proverb says the eyes are the mirror of the soul. The character designers of *batteries not included and WALL•E must have taken this to heart. Andrew Stanton said his inspiration for the look of WALL•E came when he was at a baseball game, and noticed that the binoculars he was holding seemed almost like a pair of big melancholy eyes. WALL•E‘s eyes are actually the only thing that constitute his face. The same can be said for his love interest EvE. In fact, almost all of the likable robots in WALL•E have discernable eyes. The more expressive they are, the more lovable the character is. If the character is someone we should be wary of, they will have only one eye, like AUTO or GO-4, or no eyes, like SECUR-T. In *batteries not included, the eyes are the only thing that make the saucers distinguishable as entities rather than vessels. They open and close with mechanical eyelids and change colors to show change in mood. Again, the eyes aren’t part of the face, they are the face, and our mirror to the soul on what would otherwise be totally soulless.
The importance of the eyes is also evident near the climax of each film. When WALL•E is damaged by the collapsing pillar on the Lido Deck, the damage is most clear on his left eye. When Carlos swings an ax at the small saucer in *batteries not included, he hits it, not on the back, not underneath, but right on the eye. Something dead is necessarily something soulless, and if the film maker wants to communicate a life-threat to these mechanical characters, he has to destroy their eyes, our mirror to the soul. But don’t worry, they get repaired. These are family films, after all.

So we’ve established that our characters have eyes, and thus, a soul. What does a film maker do with that? It seems they tell stories about family, children, and love, with our rust-bucket protagonists facilitating the examples.

From the moment WALL•E lays eyes on EVE, we can tell it’s love at first sight. He dotes on her and pridelessly pursues her affection in return. His devotion takes him to outer space when she is retrieved, and there we find more examples of family and love, WALL•E playing both leading man and matchmaker. He accidentally knocks John off his hover-chair, and makes a new friend. He unintentionally jolts myopic Mary from her encompassing display. It’s WALL•E’s chance meeting with these two that lends itself to their chance meeting later on, when they both notice WALL•E and EVE “dancing” outside the ship, itself a form of courtship. They accidentally touch hands, reminiscent of WALL•E’s hope to hold EVE’s hand. It’s the beginning of courtship, leading to marriage, leading to family.

Later on when AUTO tilts the ship in an attempt to maintain control from the captain, we see the “big baby” population helplessly sliding across the deck, too fat to stand, unable to right themselves. When actual babies start to slide from the nursery down toward the obese pile, it’s John and Mary who save them, with Mary shouting, “John, get ready to have some kids!” We see here again a progression, from a pair to a family, even if it is only suggested.

The imagery is even more explicit in *batteries not included. The robots themselves bear offspring, with every stage displayed, from mating through pregnancy to birth. Along with them, we’re shown their human counterpart, with Marisa clearly pregnant, her boyfriend away, and a new suitor recently made available when his girlfriend leaves. That Mason and Marisa will be together at the end of the film is a foregone conclusion as soon as they are on screen together.

Along with identifying each machine as an individual with a heart and soul, these films take care to establish gender roles. There is little doubt that WALL•E is a boy. While he isn’t some hulking imposing figure, he is utilitarian, dirty, boxy, and mechanical. EVE is as much formed as a female as WALL•E is male. She is graceful, curved, clean, and with almost ethereal qualities. Her technological superiority doesn’t supersede WALL•E’s male role, either. It’s an effective comic element that the “girl” robot is to much more capable than the “boy”. Any child could identify the male and female here without any hesitation. For the grown-ups, if there were any confusion left, we see WALL•E’s courtship (with EVE in stasis) as he shields her from the elements, takes her on a leisurely float down a (toxic) stream, builds her “sculpture” portrait, and takes the initiative to hold her hand. In the DVD commentary for WALL•E, Andrew Stanton discusses the gender differentiation in the film. He mentions a Peter Gabriel concert he attended where the stage was shown as a dichotomy, with one end representing masculinity, the other femininity. One side had boxy shapes, the other curved forms. Incidentally, it’s Gabriel who composed and performed the song for the closing credits of WALL•E, offering the denouement and epilogue as we see, in motion graphic chronology, civilization rebuilt, flowing through the major art movements from history.

Gender roles are equally defined in *batteries not included. We witness the birth of mechanical offspring straight from the mother machine. And in very similar fashion to WALL•E, we see Mason painting a (nude) portrait of (clothed) Marisa.

An interesting addition to the focus on couples, children, and family is the attention paid to nostalgia, remembrance, and home. WALL•E is the ultimate scavenger. He has for himself a home entirely made up of found items. Most of his collection seems to be admittedly useless, at least to him. Spoons, forks, and at least one spork aren’t much good to a solar powered robot. Neither are lawn gnomes or novelties like a Rubick’s cube. But it’s the collection of these tangible, seemingly useless things that contributes to WALL•E’s likableness. We are much more fond of him in his cobbled together hovel than we are of the squeaky clean, always new environment onboard the Axiom. His sense of nostalgia for a culture he was never even part of endears him to us. Even the Captain of the Axiom recognizes the importance of remembering origins. “Out there is our Home, HOME, Auto, and it’s in trouble”. Ultimately, it’s WALL•E who reminds and restores humanity to Earth. He fulfils for us a primal longing to return to our origins, our home.

The same attitude is clear in *batteries not included. The primary conflict is between the tenants of a lone decades old apartment, all of the contemporary structures destroyed by urban “progress”. After the hired goons from the developer break a prized relic from each tenant, it’s the robots who restore them, old things good as new. It’s the first indication to the people there that something strange is happening in their apartment building. Harry, who speaks only in TV ad catch-phrases, was the human freight train, a once great heavyweight champ. Time has not been kind to him, leaving him alone and forgotten by the changed world while he has stayed the same. When the diner on the ground floor is destroyed, it seems to take Frank Riley to his breaking point. This is where he was born, where he grew up, where he raised his family. But when the diner is fixed by the robots, not only is his spirit renewed, but business begins again. Customers come to the once abandoned eatery. We see even more focus on remembering and nostalgia when we consider that Frank’s wife Faye Riley has dementia. In her mind, it’s always the mid 1950’s, her son will always be a rebellious youth, and the landscape will never change. She is incapable, at least mentally, of leaving “home”. It’s the providential involvement of “the little guys”, as she calls the robots, that makes her happy delusion almost real.

Through WALL•E and *batteries not included, we cathartically experience the same regeneration as the characters affected by these minute mechanical messiahs. We leave feeling whole, with a restored sense of familial love and home. It may seem a strange coupling to include sci-fi elements, so at home with horror and the uncanny, right in the middle of a family film. But the payoff proves the formula, and like Faye Riley says in *batteries not included, “We’re a family again” when we enjoy such films with our own families.

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