Thursday, July 10, 2008

Wall-E thoughts

This isn’t a review, but there are some spoilers here. Hopefully nothing here will hurt your movie experience, but perhaps give you some food for thought.

I’ve often thought that the best thing George Lucas did was not making Star Wars or Indiana Jones, but setting up a dedicated “special effects” computer group. This little group would go on to become Pixar, the studio that redefines animation and graphics while still telling great stories. With every movie of theirs you wonder what could be better and yet (almost) every time they manage to deliver cinematic classics. From monsters in the closet to lost fish, wannabe normal superheroes, rat chefs and now an amazing robot, they continue to spin visually incredible yarns that defy imagination and dare you to expect more in the next installment. With Wall-E they’ve done it again, and have really gone where no robot has gone before. The movie is breathtaking, brilliant and pushes the boundaries of what is possible on screen when you have a great story, scriptwriters and brilliant animators.

Now, one of the great things about Pixar is that along with the story, they take serious pride in the thoroughness of their research, and their content is impeccable. Where ever there is some actual science or detail involved, they invariably try to get it right. This was on particular display in Nemo, and every frame of every scene at the bottom of the ocean was painstakingly created to real detail. It wasn’t just the general feel of it, but Pixar had taken the effort to determine exactly which species of fish or crustacean or mollusk or coral or anemone could exist in that particular ecosystem, and then the drawings of each of those were perfect. It wasn’t just the sharks who were drawn right.

There were plenty of brilliant bits in The Incredibles, but that was a superhero flick, so there could be plenty of liberties with science (while trying not to break all the laws of nature at once). But with Wall-E, Pixar has gone back to its Star War roots, and classic science fiction. Here’s the movie in a nutshell. Humans have made the earth uninhabitable, so they leave and live somewhere in distant space on a giant starship. The earth has robots (Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class, or Wall-Es) to clean it up, but all of them have now been inactivated. All except one, our hero Wall-E. He is some kind of self-teaching and constantly learning robot whose primary job is to pick up trash, compact it and pile it up. 700 years after humans have left the planet, a scout robot (Eve) comes to earth looking for signs of recovering life, meets Wall-E, sparks (literally) fly, and we have a delightfully eccentric intergalactic robot love story. But even as I left the cinema thoroughly satisfied, the scientist in me started talking in my head. Had there really been a robot named Wall-E left behind on earth, while people spent their time on a starship in space, what would things be like? Could it really be like the movie?

First, the earth itself. Now, in the movie the random abandoned city on a plant-less earth is depicted in dusty reddish hues (perhaps a little tribute to Tatooine, and a somewhat Martian landscape). There are plenty of dust storms to go around. But here’s my thought. If the world is good enough for cockroaches (as the movie says it is), it may not be good enough for us or other large animals, but it certainly will be good enough for microbes. Gazillions of them. And where there’s life on earth, there will be some photosynthesis. This means even if there aren’t too many plants around, there will be photosynthetic microbes. This in turn means the world wouldn’t just be a dry, dusty brown, but would have some shades of green, with polluted water all around. Wouldn’t it?

Then there’s Wall-E himself. I loved the way the creators of the movie made little things about Wall-E plausible. He needs energy, and the sun is the obvious inexhaustible source, so he has nice retractable solar panels (much like the Mars rover) to charge up when he’s running low. And the city is littered with tons of decommissioned Wall-Es, so Wall-E can go to any of them for spares or repairs (from new “eyes” to new caterpillar tracks). Obviously, he’s going to have wear and tear over 700 years. But how does his memory/cpu work perfectly for 700 years. My desktop has a habit of dying every couple of years, so clearly Wall-E wasn’t made in some low-cost mass fabrication plant. Either that, or Wall-E needs to be able to repair and replace his own memory or cpu by himself, figuring out a way to backup and retransfer all the data (so that he remembers he’s the Wall-E and not just some generic wall-e). How does he pull that off?

The world of instant gratification on the starship had massively obese people shuttling around on their little pods, and communicating exclusively through the virtual screen. Obviously, centuries of living without any walking would result in massive obesity. What was far more delightful was the description of massive bone loss and bone shrinkage from the limbs of these people. But how much bone would we loose if we don’t walk for 700 years? Will we (as the valiant captain of the ship does) even be able to lift our body mass, leave alone walk? And, ahem, if people never physically interact, how do babies come? And here’s a question for you. Can you use a fire extinguisher in outer space to propel yourself forward? And how long will a plant survive in the frigid temperatures of outer space?

Finally, most of the imaginary technology on display in the movie was brilliant. The details on the starship were spectacular, and those little pods which the people lived on were fantastic. But why did Wall-E, back on earth, have a betamax VCR and a cassette (Hello Dolly!) from the 60s? Wouldn’t he have an abandoned DVD player or something instead? There must be some story behind this, so will one of the creators of the movie tell us?

There are only a few movies out there which have scenes in them filled with such lush detail of imaginary worlds, but Wall-E enthralls you in almost every scene, leaving you to ponder a thousand little questions. Perhaps that’s why it isn’t surprising that this is the first movie in a long time that left me with so many thoughts after the movie.

If you haven’t seen it yet, go see the movie, and come up with your own questions.