the good and the bad

Today I’m going to discuss two films that represent the best and worst of what’s available in the cinema currently.

Wall-e hopes and waitsFirst up: WALL-E, Pixar’s latest offering, which is usually a treat. The story was conceived by Andrew Stanton and Pete Docter, and the screenplay was written by Andrew Stanton and Jim Reardon; Andrew Stanton directed the film.

This is a fine example of the importance of character in film. Wall-e is a lone robot on a trashed planet Earth, who compacts the rubbish, but collects the artefacts of human existence: a light bulb, a Rubix cube, a string of lights, and an old VHS tape of the musical Hello Dolly are among the treasures in his Aladdin’s cave. One day he finds a plant growing, and soon after another robot is deposited on the planet, the sleek Eve. It’s love at first sight for Wall-e, but Eve is little harder to impress.

The plant is a sign the Earth is recovering from its human-made apocalypse, and once Eve discovers it she seizes it and is transported back to the Axiom, the spacecraft that holds the rest of humanity. Wall-e hitches a ride. What we discover is that this self-enclosed world has been waiting for 700 years for a sign to return to Earth. It’s not that simple of course, and there are a number of chases, miscommunications, and eventually love and redemption.

The first third of the film operates with almost no dialogue, which is hardly noticeable. Wall-e’s loneliness and his tenacious patience is completely endearing. What I found really interesting is the how the gender roles in the robots are distributed. Wall-e is the caring, sentimental robot. Eve is the rather cranky, gun-slinging badass bot. Wall-e wooes her by his persistence, honesty, and trust. Eve never diminishes in her purpose because of her affection for Wall-e. He saves her and she saves him. There’s also some rather intriguing subtext going on with the broken robots – who work outside the strict lines and demarcations of their by-the-law lives. What a great lesson for children, even if they’re only absorbing it unconsciously.

The only issue I have with Wall-e is one of colour. I was saddened to see that aboard the Axiom all the main characters who have agency are white. Of course there were people of colour but they were in the background. The Captain, and all the captains in the 700-year history of the Axiom were white. Pixar is usually so great that it’s hard for me to contemplate how they dropped the ball on this. Especially since the wonderful Kathy Najimy voices the character of Mary.

Once I noticed this I began to follow a train of thought about the practicalities of the Axiom, and how much resources it would take to keep the spacecraft going and the people fed, and how the children were being conceived and born, and why there was no sense of the politics of the place, no artwork, or society in general. I suspect the idea was that everyone was kept in thrall by their vid-screen as they flew about in their big loungers, but it just didn’t gel for me. I’d have thought that after 700 years stuck together on a ship everyone would have been a bit browner.

It’s funny how one incongruous detail can lead to a deluge of questions about the “reality” of the world. The action, and the characters, kept me occupied during the latter part of the film but I lost something during that realisation. My suspension of disbelief wavered, and the real world seeped in a little.

Don’t get me wrong, Wall-E is charming, funny, and moving film. It’s the kind of movie you want children to see. I feel rather strongly, however, that children need to see representations of themselves in roles that are active, engaging, and emotionally powerful. Especially if they are set in the future. I think we need to offer them the possibility for change. At least the robots offer excellent role models for children (which is kind of a weird statement!).

On to the worst: Wanted. This is adapted from the comic book by Mark Millar and J.G. Jones, a story developed by Michael Brandt and Derek Haas, and the screenplay was written by Michael Brandt, Derek Haas, and Chris Morgan. This is not a good first sign. Timur Bekmambetov, best known for the visually inventive Night Watch and Day Watch, directed the film.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this film since I watched it some weeks back. Not for good reasons. I’ve been pondering on how a film so morally bankrupt could be made. The plot is this: Wesley Gibon (James MacAvoy) discovers he’s really a special kid whose father really did love him even though the dad walked out when he was a baby. He’s taken from his crappy loser life and inducted into the world of super-assassins by Fox (Angelina Jolie) and mentored by Sloan (Morgan Freeman). These assassins take their orders from Fate, in the form of an old-fashioned self-propelled loom (yeah, this one snapped my credibility elastic). Wes’s dad was taken out by a rogue assassin, and even though Wes never knew his daddy he’s intent on revenge. The film plays out in a series of flashy, impressive, set pieces, to arrive at its heinous last moment.

First off it’s completely derivative. For the first twenty minutes I thought I’d be transported into an awful version of The Matrix. Wes=Neo, Fox=Trinity, and Sloan=Morpheus. Even the last “storming the castle” sequence at the end of the film is right out of The Matrix.

Most importantly the gender politics in this film are utterly rotten. Throughout the film violence is lauded as a way to solve all problems. Masculinity in defined in terms of gun-wielding, ass-kicking, women-despising, action. Wes is initially depicted as a drone in an office who takes orders from his fat, obnoxious female boss (of course she’s fat, these days it’s acceptable to code vile sad people as overweight). Wes knows his girlfriend is fucking his best friend, and yet remains on speaking terms with both – in short Wes is emasculated. What worse fate is there for a young man? Enter Fox, who although a woman is coded as male in pretty much everything so the boys can identify with her.

The worst insult that is thrown at men all the time is “pussy”.

The crappiest scene is when Wes returns to his apartment after becoming superboy. He punches out his best friend, and when his ex-girlfriend launches into a tirade against him Fox enters the room and kisses him. The best friend, bleeding on the floor, looks up at Wes and says “You’re the man!”, and the ex then does an about-face and says the equivalent of “Call me” to Wes.

You see, ladies, that’s what women really want: the obnoxious, rude, violent, man, who will treat us like shit.

This kind of offensive tripe perpetuates some of the worst stereotypes about what it means to be a man, and how men should deal with the world. It’s also explicitly targeted at young men, who might be susceptible to this kind of garbage. One can only hope that young men today are raised with enough common sense to realise they are being fed a destructive myth that will diminish their experience of the world if they buy into it.

There’s no imagination or originality to redeem the film. While the action scenes were often diverting, they are merely the hollow sounds from a very empty jar.