Last night the film we screened at my college film society was Disney Pixar’s 2008 effort, WALL-E. It’s the latest in a fast-growing set of sci-fi/space-themed films I’ve seen and enjoyed recently. It turns out I’m actually a bit of a sci-fi geek. I think we know who to thank/blame for bringing out this side of me!
I’d never seen WALL-E before, and, to be perfectly honest, my first thought was something like ‘this is no Monsters, Inc.’. I even found the opening rather slow and a bit dull. But it was me that was being slow, as I hadn’t yet twigged that the film was deliberately placing itself in an intertextual relationship to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), a film I watched twice over the summer.
I’m ashamed I didn’t see the connections Pixar were making faster, but now that I’ve had a bit of time to think about it here are my thoughts about the relationship between WALL-E and 2001.
Of course the most obvious link WALL-E makes to Kubrick’s picture is by sampling music from 2001’s score at a timely moment. In Kubrick’s film the distinctive song ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra’ scores the ape’s realisation/invention of tools, and consequent development to the upright stance of modern humans (watch from 5.40 below). Kubrick’s decision to have the apes played by costumed actors underscores the process of evolution from ape to man which is conveyed by this sequence.
While 2001’s first act, ‘The Dawn of Man’, tells the story of pre-historical humanity, WALL-E is set in the distant future. There are no humans left on the post-apocalyptic Earth, as hundreds of years before the point at which the film opens they departed for an extended holiday in space. For seven hundred years humanity has continued aboard the Axiom, a luxury starliner where life is lived out from the comfort of hover chairs. Back on Earth robots like the eponymous WALL-E are cleaning up debris. In WALL-E ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra’ is played as the Axiom’s Captain stands upright for the first time in his life, just like 2001’s ape. Yet the parallel runs deeper than this.
When the ape in 2001 realises that the bones of a dead animal can be put to use, and that to do so he must stand only on two feet, he is discovering as yet unfulfilled potential. When the Captain stands up in WALL-E he likewise (but more consciously) decides to live up to his potential, both physically and ethically. The Captain’s ethical reform is suggested in the following exchange with the Autopilot:
CAPTAIN Auto, Eve found the plant. Fire up the Holo-detector.
AUTOPILOT Not necessary, Captain. You may give it to me.
CAPTAIN (not listening) You know what? I should do it myself.
The Captain’s realisation is that humankind have been lazy, neglecting their duty to look after the Earth.
The ‘character’ of the Autopilot also has its origins in 2001, in which the Discovery’s astronauts Dave Bowman and Frank Poole work alongside a state-of-the-art computer system, the HAL-9000, which monitors and controls all aspects of the spacecraft. The Autopilot in WALL-E has a single unblinking red light, representing an all-seeing eye, just like Hal.
And like Hal, the Autopilot isn’t to blame for its actions – it has been designed to zealously follow orders, and as WALL-E sets out to demonstrate, it is the actions of past humans which were wrong.
The film may be pretty heavy-handed in conveying its environmental message, perhaps due to the fact that Disney Pixar are pitching at children. But we clearly can’t expect under 10s to pick up on WALL-E’s references to 2001; they’re there for the benefit of adults taking their kids to the cinema. Pixar are brilliant at writing (and marketing) movies for both children and adults, and thus maximising ticket and DVD sales (here I make a similar point in relation to Monsters University).
So what of WALL-E’s ‘slow’ opening? As well as engaging with 2001: A Space Odyssey through direct reference (the use of ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra’) and drawing on it thematically, WALL-E is indebted to 2001 in terms of structure. This can only be seen retrospectively. In the first act we watch WALL-E go about his daily tasks on a barren Earth and there’s no dialogue. At the end of the act, we go to space. Only without the jump cut (see 6.58 in the first video).
Remember all of those beautiful stills of sunsets in 2001? They might just be the reason WALL-E is solar-powered (though the natural and renewable source of WALL-E’s power also contributes to the film’s environmental message). The prominence of the sun is an example of WALL-E’s inheritance from 2001 in terms of visuals. An even more obvious instance is the similarity of terrain and colour palette in the first acts of each film. Later on, WALL-E gives us a quick glimpse of the kind of light Dave sees in 2001’s final minutes as the Captain returns the Axiom to Earth.
2001 and WALL-E are both about discovery – of the self and of space. But in WALL-E there’s a striking reversal of space research both as Kubrick envisaged it and as it exists today; humans live in space and probes are sent to Earth.
Of course here I’ve only scratched the surface in terms of noticing similarities between WALL-E and 2001 and considering why they might be there, and I’d be glad to hear any other observations and ideas – feel free to comment below.
A much more topical film that’s been compared to 2001 in many respects is Alfonso Cuaron’s latest, Gravity. Both 2001 and Gravity do an excellent job of demonstrating how important sound and music are to creating the atmosphere of a film. The instant recognisability of ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra’, and the ideas it evokes due to its use in 2001, is testament to this.
In Gravity the ‘first-person’ effect whereby the audience enters Dr Stone’s (Sandra Bullock) helmet in order to effectively experience the situation through her eyes is achieved through use of sound as well as visuals. A lack of music allows the sounds of Stone’s breathing, or struggles for breath, to be emphasised. You might even find yourself suddenly very aware of your own breathing. This is cinematic empathy. Back in ’68, the final sequence of 2001 put us inside Dave Bowman’s helmet as he journeyed ‘beyond the infinite’.
EDIT (27/12/2014): A year on, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is another film with a detailed web of connections to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Read more in my Interstellar review.