Disney/Pixar’s “WALL-E” Animates the Future and Mirrors the Present

June 24, 2008

Saw Pixar’s newest animated movie “WALL-E” at a MoMA preview on Sunday. Directed by Andrew Stanton (who won an Oscar for Best Animated Feature, for “Finding Nemo” in 2003) and released by Disney, the animated narrative unfolds around two robots, WALL-E and EVE. It’s (shall we anthropomorphically call it…) a love story set in a dystopic and divided auto-consumerized future, which eventually becomes the ground for a new, more human, Earth.

Hands down: the animation is gorgeous. You know something’s picture-perfect when you don’t even think it’s an animated production. I still remember seeing-but-not-believing its first animated feature “Toy Story” back in 1995. “Wall-E” is Pixar 2008 and Disney 21st Century. Baudrillard might have called it a simulacrum so seamless you forget it’s a fiction. There are moments in the first part of the film when you really think there’s a crew filming WALL-E’s dust-ridden, junk-filled terrain.

WALL-E itself is a friendly garbage-collecting-robot that looks strikingly like Johnny 5 in “Short Circuit” (1986). It’s the last remaining robot on Earth. It’s been tirelessly doing its job for about 700 years. (Since the movie is set in the year 2700, we might assume that the writers are trying to tell us that WALL-E was probably created right about now.) It’s got a soft spot for old-fashioned romance musicals.

Suddenly, WALL-E encounters EVE, a futuristic cyborg/militarized automaton who has landed on Earth to look for sustainable life. WALL-E’s got it, in the form of a single plant. EVE, it turns out, is a probe from a spaceship in which the last remaining humans are consuming themselves into an overweight and immobile oblivion. The two robot-opposites attract and the rest, as they say, is history. Or maybe the future.

What do we expect from Disney? It’s a classic love story, along the lines of Beauty and the Beast or Cinderella. Set against an environmental catastrophe and “An Inconvenient Truth”. Disney sure knows how to tug at them heartstrings — a lot for a movie with minimal dialogue.

While I did honestly enjoy “WALL-E”, I also found myself asking how much it illuminates our current state of affairs: I’m watching a love story about two inanimate machines, who are somehow more human than humans. I’m looking at the effects of hyper-consumerism and technology-driven simulation — through a Disney/Pixar creation. And I’m facing a screen, blogging about this to a largely-unknown group of readers. We are living the foundations of this science fiction. WALL-E mirrors our time.

In short: good movie, good soundtrack, great animation. Go see it! Opens June 27.


Microsoft: The Robots Are Coming

May 18, 2008

robots

Microsoft Research announced the winners of its “Robots Among Us” request for proposals, a program that looks into the growing field of human-robot interaction or HRI. The eight winning projects were selected from 74 submissions from academic researchers in 24 countries and will split US$500,000 in funding. Each project attemps to further integrate social, intelligent robots into human environments — or should we say, humans into AI/robotic environments. The projects range from PDA-driven intelligent wheelchairs and FaceBots embedded in social networking sites to disaster response robots such as Survivor Buddy for trapped victims and a multi-touch computing platform that can monitor different systems and robots deployed at a disaster site.

Yesterday, Roland Piquepaille on Technology Trends blogged about one of the winners: Robin Murphy of the University of South Florida, who is developing Survivor Buddy, a multimedia, web-enabled robot that can function as “a companion to a person who may be trapped after a car crash or in building ruins following an earthquake, or someone pinned down by sniper fire.” Murphy designed the robots used for urban search and rescue at the World Trade Center site after the 9/11/2001 attacks. The robots were tele-operated and used to enter spaces too small, too deep, or too dangerous for human or canine rescuers. Frustrated with recent disasters in Burma and China, Murphy says: “My dream is that one day you’ll see rescuers and dogs at a disaster site, but if you don’t see a robot, you’ll say, ‘Where are they?’ because they’ll have become so commonplace. They’ll do things dogs and people can’t.”

We’re not in Kansas anymore.

Photo: Dan Coulter on Flickr