To point out that Pixar's latest sure-to-be-blockbuster, Wall-E, will likely be one of the best films of 2008 is just redundant: Pixar, with stuff like The Incredibles and Ratatouille, has made it a habit to make consistently great films. But another fact—that Wall-E won't only be one of the best films of the year, but that it'll also likely become one of the best science-fiction films ever made—well, that's a bit more unexpected, and a bit trickier to prove.
Making things even trickier is that I don't want to give much away: I could lay all of Wall-E out, plot point by plot point; I could describe each of the film's astonishing vistas; I could delve into its brilliantly conceived, densely packed imagery; I could attest to how emotionally and intellectually engaging it is, from its haunting, melancholic opening to its end credits. I could bring up how unconventional the film is (its stars are robots, and there's a good half-hour before anything even vaguely resembling spoken dialogue appears), or I could point out that, of all the major Hollywood releases I've seen, I can think of few that trump Wall-E for sheer audacity.
But that's all too broad, so I'll narrow it down. In the future, Earth's a wasteland: deserted cities lie buried underneath mountains of garbage; what little water there is left is dark and gloppy; and harsh, orange light trickles through a clogged atmosphere. Even from orbit—where we've even left junk on the moon, and a dense cloud of abandoned satellites jostle against each other—the stain left by humanity isn't fading anytime soon. All the same, Wall-E—a clunky, charming trash compactor on wheels—has been programmed to clean. Packing up humanity's refuse, Wall-E toils under vivid, still-bright billboards ("Buy 'n' Large: Everything You Need to be Happy!"), and, as he trundles about, compacting trash and collecting knickknacks like battered hubcaps and scraps of bubble wrap, he has only a tenacious cockroach as a companion. From the first moment he appears, Wall-E is instantly identifiable and loveable (not for nothing, one suspects, does his appearance recall that of Spielberg's E.T.), so we can't help but share in his excitement and fear when Eve, a shiny, mysterious robot, gracefully swoops in from space. When she leaves Earth, our smitten hero tags along, and there he finds—
See, and here's where I can't even do it justice, 'cause here's where Wall-E really cuts loose, getting even smarter and more engaging as its scope becomes both epically grand and heartbreakingly intimate. Along the way there's a genuinely great love story, stunning production design, amazing sound work, and visuals that're nothing less than astonishing (with good cause, too: Coen Brothers cinematographer Roger Deakins and Industrial Light and Magic's Dennis Muren serve as the film's visual consultants).
Wall-E is at once massive in scope and fantastically simple; it's a grand adventure story that also has something to say. (And what it says is something that most American audiences in suburban multiplexes will neither expect nor, likely, be all that fond of.) Science fiction can do this, every once in a while, when it's not mired in staid genre conventions or content to be pulpy camp: It can captivate, and astonish, and say things no other genre can. Wall-E is a tremendous amount of fun—like most great films, it is, at its core, simply a delight to experience—but it's also important, and beautiful, and sad. It's a movie made by computers, and set in the far future, and about two robots—and yet, sometimes cruelly, sometimes sweetly, but always with grace and wit, it shows us who we are and what we can be.