Ridding Earth of waste and Russian spies

MOVIES OF THE WEEK: Shaun de Waal reviews WALL-E, Pixar’s latest offering and Wanted, starring James McAvoy and Angelina Jolie.

There was an old joke (if it was a joke) among behaviourists conducting experiments on humans: ‘Try not to anthropomorphise the subject.”

Behaviourism is out of fashion nowadays, except in its cognitive varieties, but we humans anthropomorphise most things anyway. It was imputing human-like agency and intentionality to the weather that led to the birth of religion, in all probability, and the American movie industry would never have developed animated movies if we weren’t able to ascribe human characteristics to everything from animals to toys. (Hollywood can even anthropomorphise Tom Cruise.)

The latest success in that vein is Pixar’s new animated movie, Wall-E, which has received glowing reviews in the United States. The titular character is a robot designed to sort and compress waste—and he’s still at it, despite humanity having long since buggered off, leaving behind what can only now be described as a waste land. Trash covers everything.

So Wall-E (which apparently stands for Waste Allocation Load Lifter—Earth) is busy trying to tidy up the deserted planet, or at least the large city in which he finds himself. The opening sequences of the film form a charming introduction to Wall-E and his way of life, including the home he has made for himself and the interesting bits and bobs he has collected there: apparently, given enough time, even waste-disposal robots develop human-like characteristics, including the desire to collect junk.

Wall-E’s life changes when a more advanced robot lands to investigate the state of the planet. He’s entranced and when the other robot is removed he follows her into space. Wall-E is indeed a ‘he” and the other robot, Eve, a ‘she”, because even before her name has emerged it’s clear that he’s meant to be male, in some notional way, and she is female. Talk about anthropomorphism! Even robots can’t be free of gender.

Here we have more of the Hollywood tendency to give us movies from a heterosexual male point of view and moreover to give a somewhat underwhelming (though, in this case, undeniably cute) male a female love interest of clearly superior evolutionary standing. See Knocked Up, Forgetting Sarah Marshall and so on. Perhaps this is just a case of what REM described in one song as the desire ‘to merge your DNA with something better”, but I’m still having trouble with the woman’s motivation here.

Back to Wall-E. After that lovely and often very funny opening half-hour or so, the paired robots are given a task that is familiar from so many, many movies: to save humanity and/or the planet. What’s a bit of a pity is that we have to care about the humans at all. So successfully does the film anthropomorphise the robots, and so artfully are they animated, that by the time we get to meet the off-planet people we are highly unlikely to find them very interesting or cute at all. Not that this lot of ultra-consumerist blobs are meant to be cute, but we are supposed to care about the future of humanity on Earth.

Once involved in rescuing humanity and/or the planet (the two tend to blur), Wall-E becomes less purely enjoyable—less of a beautifully conjured poem to the weirdly human qualities of imaginary machinery. I’m beginning to think that the vast majority of American movies have only one theme: X saves Y. Sometimes Y is a person, sometimes the whole of humanity (and sometimes the same as X, in which case the theme is ‘redemption”), but either way someone or something has to be saved. In Wall-E this salvation is linked to an eco-message that is all very well but it’s presented in the most extravagantly high-tech manner possible.

Wall-E is undeniably brilliant as far as its animation goes. Its style is Pixar’s almost-real 3D look, as pioneered in Toy Story. It makes an interesting contrast with the other recent animation success, Kung Fu Panda, which exploits the more traditional Disney-style flatness and is about saving only a Chinese village of pigs and geese. Wall-E is undeniably fun, too, if you don’t mind the messagey stuff in the latter half, which comes with a steady decline in amusement as salvation approaches.

It also reverts to an in-joke referencing 2001: A Space Odyssey when all else fails, which is not as funny as the idea of Sigourney Weaver voicing a Hal-type computer, as she does here. More unfortunately, it also pulls the old ET trick, with a key character dying and then being resurrected a few minutes later, though naturally after much huffing, puffing and presumably the shedding of tears (on our part). This is surely the most sickeningly manipulative trick in the movie book, even if we’ve been trained by now to assume that resurrection will take place before too long. And, still, we do care about the damn robot.

Shoot ‘em up up up
Russian director (well, born in Kazakhstan) Timur Bekmambetov was presumably hired to direct the action thriller Wanted on the strength of his successful supernatural capers Night Watch and Day Watch, which displayed a wildly pyrotechnic style that he uses to full effect in Wanted.

There are correspondences, though, between Bekmambetov’s earlier films and Wanted, which make it look like he’s more than just a director-for-hire on this job. Secret societies are very important in Wanted as well as the Russian films—and issues of paternity a major thematic concern in all of them. Not since the Gospels has “Who’s your daddy?” been such a burning question.

Whatever the case, Wanted is based on a graphic novel and Bekmambetov had some input into the story line, because the film was already being scripted before the novel was complete. So maybe he added his liking for secret groups with geopolitical agendas and his concerns with paternity.

Wanted is about a little grey man, one Wesley, whose life is transformed by the sudden intervention of a woman called, believe it or not, Fox. She is indeed foxy and she turns out to be one of a secret society of super-assassins. Wesley is eventually inducted into that group—obviously a life-changing experience. After that, he’s no longer a little grey man, though we could perhaps have intuited that by seeing that he’s played by James McAvoy, the hottest new young British actor to conquer Hollywood.

Certainly, once you’re in a speeding car, fending off a killer sent to destroy you as he destroyed your dad in a flashback, with Angelina Jolie shooting and swinging out the car and so on, it’s likely your life is about to change. From that point on, for Wesley, it’s no more anxiolytics and screeching fat bosses; it’s just mystico-techno-babble about virtually superhuman killing skills, leaning to bend a bullet’s trajectory and — well, then there’s the Loom of Fate, but let’s not go there. By then the viewer is not taking this terribly seriously.

Wanted is thrilling from early on, particularly the abovementioned car chase/battle, though it does slump a little by the time Wesley has to be introduced to his new fellow-assassins, never mind the various explanations for what they do, why they do it and what’s going on in general (not that it really explains much at all). The movie picks up soon after, though, and then it’s full steam ahead in the direction of a big whiz-bang climax. It gets ever more preposterous as it goes, but one hangs on for the ride.

Like Leonardo DiCaprio in The Beach, McAvoy has done enough bodybuilding to buff him up to glistening-muscled-torso level, or has at least gained enough muscle and kept it for long enough to make one such scene possible. (DiCaprio’s topless moment in The Beach apparently had to be shot late in the process of making the movie; cleverly, it’s inserted early on in the narrative.) Such displays of musculature are necessary if the protagonist is to be a credible action hero; sans torso, it’s all meaningless. Jolie, by contrast, can do it all with her eyes and her cheekbones.

This seems a bit of a comedown for McAvoy, who is a considerable serious actor, as The Last King of Scotland and Atonement showed. Here he’s playing a role that doesn’t require much real acting, though he’s also rather good at running around shouting, shooting and performing (or seeming to perform) various outrageous stunts.

Bekmambetov employs his full bag of cinematographic tricks (the only omission being the animated subtitles of his Russian films). There are more zips and pans and cranes and zooms and cuts and over-the-top bits of CGI than you can shake a nunchaku stick at. This is pretty exciting for a while, but it does get wearying by the latter stages of Wanted.

Still, it’s reasonably entertaining, in its ridiculous, overheated way, and Terence Stamp turns up for his second cameo role in as many weeks. Here he’s not quite the pantomime villain he plays in last week’s release, Get Smart, though close enough. I wish someone would give him the lead in something; he hasn’t had one since The Limey. Meanwhile, Morgan Freeman (who has a larger role in Wanted) really needs to bank the money he’s earning with these silly gigs and get on with practising his Nelson Mandela accent.

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal

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