WALL-E revels in robot love

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 3, 2008

AP Entertainment Writer
Though the feeling can’t yet be reciprocated, Hollywood has a crush on robots.
“WALL-E,” the Pixar blockbuster that opened to ecstatic reviews and $62.5 million at the box office this weekend, is a tale of robot love.
Our hero is a little pile of metal and circuitry in the mold of R2D2, and our heroine is a sleeker but less personable model. (In male-dominated Hollywood, apparently even robots are subject to gender roles.)
Writer-director Andrew Stanton has consistently spoken of his desire to make an emotional sci-fi movie. He clearly made his task difficult by trying to pull heartstrings with two metallic machines who can only bleep and blork.
“WALL-E” is only the latest film that seeks to humanize robots. As an audience, we are meant to sit in dark theaters looking up at the big screen and FEEL for the oppressed digital beings of the future. Audiences are more than happy to be swept away by something as artful as “WALL-E,” but there’s a notable disconnect between its premise and its emotional force.
They’re ROBOTS!
Hollywood has a great fetish for humanizing an artificial intelligence we haven’t yet invented. On the big screen, it’s a given that as soon as AI is created, we’re going to be downright nasty to those poor lil’ robots?
It would not be a stretch to say that filmmakers seem more concerned with the emotions and freedoms of thus-far nonexistent machines than most currently oppressed humans. (Don’t hold your breath for an animated blockbuster about Zimbabwe.)
But this is not heartlessness by Hollywood; it’s a fascinating obsession that says much about the Dream Factory.
We have seen Will Smith release the imprisoned robot masses in “I, Robot.” (“I don’t want my toaster or my vacuum cleaner appearing emotional,” Smith jokes before his character’s conversion.)
In “Blade Runner,” Harrison Ford hunts “replicants” (humanoid robots) before doubting the cause ó and whether he, too, might be a replicant.
The “Terminator” movies are based on the fear of a future taken over by robots, but we eventually begin to root for the Terminator, played by our most robotic of actors, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
WALL-E’s inspiration, R2D2 (whose sound engineer Ben Burtt also does WALL-E’s “voice”), and his sidekick C-3PO were what bound “Star Wars” together. The common thread throughout George Lucas’ saga, they outlive everyone.
Visions of the threat of robots is a parallel, darker tradition in Hollywood dating back the “false Maria” of Fritz Lang’s 1926 masterpiece “Metropolis.” Arguably the greatest film in this vein is Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” ó a movie obviously referenced in “WALL-E.”
But more than anyone, Kubrick also examined the future ethics of artificial intelligence, and more importantly, what it means for an audience to sympathize with a robotic hero. It was Steven Spielberg who followed through on Kubrick’s unfinished plans for 2001’s “A.I.,” in which the tantalizingly cute robot, played by Haley Joel Osment, attempts to become “real.”
In “WALL-E,” we similarly follow a robot hero who wins us over with his endurance through solitude. The unlikely spark of love energizes WALL-E, whose bincocular-like eyes are slanted in a perpetual droop that we can’t help but respond to with a collective “Aw.”
In many of these films, robots are a metaphor for what we don’t understand and therefore label “inhuman.” In 1999’s terrific “The Iron Giant” (directed by Brad Bird, who went on to become a Pixar man, helming “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille”), the lovable lug of the title is the victim of Cold War-era paranoia.
But “WALL-E” and other robot-friendly films are chiefly about technology and coming to terms with it. WALL-E collects the debris of human ingenuity ó an iPod, a Rubik’s cube ó reveling in its achievements.
In the movie, the audacity of technology ó namely WALL-E ó might even save a complacent human race. But the film isn’t blindly supportive of machines. For the overweight and lazy humans of “WALL-E” to be awakened, one character will also have to defeat a very HAL-like device.
It should come as no surprise that Hollywood has such a penchant for humanizing robots. Movies have always been a medium whose advance is paced by technology. The creation of the moving image was an invention in the 19th century, and cinema progressed with the advent of sound recording in the `20s, color motion pictures later and ó recently ó digital filmmaking.
Pixar, itself, is built on advances in computer generated animation.
Love movies, love robots.