HOLLYWOOD -- Forty years ago, at the height of the race between the United States and the Soviet Union to lay claim to the cosmos, a much-anticipated science-fiction movie made its debut and sci-fi was never the same again.
Kids whose parents dragged them along to the theater were alternately bemused, disturbed and mesmerized. We knew we'd seen a grown-up movie, even if we couldn't completely make sense of it all. What was up with the weird baby, the deafening Teutonic music, that thing that looked like a giant blackboard turned sideways? We were being initiated into a cultural dialogue that was, after all, about our future.
The movie was Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey," and many critics and much of the public instantly recognized it as a landmark. It was, wrote Los Angeles Times film critic Charles Champlin, "the picture that science-fiction fans of every age and in every corner of the world have prayed (sometimes forlornly) that the industry might some day give them."
This summer, another sci-fi movie, Pixar's animated "Wall-E," is generating the same sort of critical hallelujahs that "2001" did in its day. Technically, "Wall-E" is indeed a marvel, especially the long, nearly wordless opening sequence that shows the title character, a trash-collecting robot, going about his lonely labors on an environmentally devastated Earth.
But this G-rated movie, with its lovable protagonist and ultimately reassuring message about mankind's fate, also strikes me as something of an evasion, a retreat from the knottier issues and themes raised in "2001" and other classic sci-films of the 1960s and '70s, such as "Planet of the Apes" (1968) and "Silent Running" (1972).
Wait a minute, you're thinking: "Wall-E" is a family-friendly popcorn flick, right? It's not supposed to be Ray Bradbury, Ursula Le Guin or William Gibson. It's a gentle, amusing parable about planetary survival that can be grasped by anyone with an 8-year-old's social conscience.
But that's exactly the point. How come this year Hollywood's big-budget take on the four-alarm state of our world is wrapped in a warm-and-fuzzy cartoon? Can we not handle the inconvenient truth about melting glaciers, toxic air and species extinction unless it comes swaddled in feel-good stories about, say, dancing penguins or cuddly trash compactors? And if animated movies are going to tackle serious subjects, as they increasingly do, shouldn't they be held to serious standards?
Ever since Jules Verne and H.G. Wells began writing about spaceships and alien invaders, science fiction has struggled to be taken seriously as a genre worthy of adults. But cinema, beginning with the 14-minute classic "Le Voyage dans la lune" (A Trip to the Moon), in 1902, has helped us envision the final frontier in a way few books ever could.
As World War II drew to an end, even the most outlandish futuristic scenarios -- rocket travel, weapons of mass destruction, planetary annihilation -- suddenly seemed possible. In the decades since, classic science-fiction movies have demonstrated that imagining the shape of things to come is too serious a task to be treated as mere child's play. The Cold War and Atomic Age anxieties of 1956's "Forbidden Planet," the fears of artificial intelligence run amok in "2001," the pending environmental meltdown foreshadowed in "Silent Running" and the threat of creeping dehumanization raised in "Blade Runner" (1982) helped establish science-fiction movies as being not simply gee-whiz entertainments for adolescents of all ages but valuable pop-culture portals for examining " and trying to counteract " the dangerous tendencies of human behavior in the here and now.
To be sure, "Wall-E" does this too " up to a point. But in the end, the movie fails to meet the ambitions it sets for itself with the grim scenario it lays out in its opening minutes. And it finally sidesteps the most painful questions that nearly all serious science fiction must grapple with in one form or another: whether the human race is worth saving, and, if so, why.
Spoiler alert: Stop reading now if you don't want to know how the movie turns out.
The film's charming and poignant first half is by far its best. It opens with a richly imagined vision of a desolate landscape where garbage dumps are piled as high as skyscrapers. The only animate beings are Wall-E and his cockroach companion, who communicate with each other through squeaks and mechanical rumbles. Mournfully beautiful and frighteningly credible, the sequence makes us feel a deep sense of loss, both for our once-beautiful planet and for our human selves, now vanished from the Earth.
The image of absent humanity can be glimpsed among the junky prize possessions that Wall-E has collected, which include a Rubik's Cube, a game of Pong, and a battered video of the 1969 movie musical "Hello, Dolly!" The ghostly, nostalgic scenes of turn-of-the-century dancers and crooning lovers in "Hello, Dolly!" are poignant because they evoke the lost innocence of America, humankind and, not coincidentally, Hollywood movies.
The movie's far less original second half adopts a much more glib tone as it turns into a knowing movie that's partly about science-fiction movies (referencing "2001," "Alien," etc.). It lacks any image remotely as poetic as those earlier dust-blown visions of abandoned cities.
When human characters finally appear, they're not the flesh-and-blood creatures seen in "Hello, Dolly!" but cartoon characters. These tubby, baby-ish beings, made flaccid by hundreds of years of living on a space ship where they're catered to by fleets of robots, are more humorous than shocking or upsetting, because the audience isn't forced to identify with them to the same extent that we would have been if they were played by real actors.
In serious science fiction, humans who've degenerated into some sort of new mutation force us to confront the darkest sides of our nature. Think of the cannibalistic Morlocks and the feckless, sheeplike Eloi of Wells' "The Time Machine," one of sci-fi's master narratives. By contrast, the Pillsbury doughboys and girls in "Wall-E" are a bit dim but otherwise sweet, polite, essentially harmless, kinda cute. They're essentially blameless for their slovenly, debased condition, one of several ways in which the movie lets the audience off the hook. That's ironic, given that the reason the humans in "Wall-E" have grown soft and flabby is because they've been infantilized, i.e. treated as big babies rather than as adults. "Wall-E" offers a sharp, funny take on the pacifying effects of Western consumer society, but the filmmakers soften their indictment by treating it mostly as a lighthearted visual gag (fat people falling off their motorized Barcaloungers). As a work of sci-fi cinema, "Wall-E" is comfort food disguised as a bitter pill.
Although the humans eventually rebel against their pampered consumer paradise and return to "re-colonize" Earth, there's nothing to suggest that they'll be up to the challenge of re-adapting. The movie ends just at the crucial dramatic moment when the humans are stepping out into their new home.
And apart from the spaceship captain, who rebels against a bullying computer, the humans in "Wall-E" really don't do much to earn their shot at redemption. The movie doesn't make the case that mankind, having fouled its nest, deserves a second chance. Compare them to the hero of "Silent Running," an eco-friendly movie to which "Wall-E" owes a considerable debt. In that earlier film, directed by Douglas Trumbull, the misanthropic botanist played by Bruce Dern deliberately kills several of his fellow astronauts in order to save the outer-space greenhouses that are sheltering Earth's last remaining plants. He faces, and makes, an agonizing choice with real moral consequences.
In assessing the place of "Wall-E" in sci-fi history, it's worth recalling that the much more downbeat and ambivalent "Blade Runner," released near the start of Ronald Reagan's "Morning in America," drew very mixed reactions, possibly because it clashed with the tenor of the era. But it has since been widely recognized as a masterpiece.
Today, with so many Americans fearing that their country's stature is slipping away, there is perhaps a natural tendency to over-praise an upbeat, heartfelt movie that offers a glimmer of hope for a future that, at present, doesn't look very rosy. "Wall-E" starts out gloomy, but in the end evokes a time when movies themselves seemed more carefree and All-American spunk and know-how could solve even the most daunting challenges.
But let's hope that future sci-fi movies will keep grappling with problems for which there are unlikely to be any simple fixes or solutions that don't entail enormous change and sacrifice. After all, great science fiction isn't obliged to provide answers, just questions.