WASHINGTON -- For a children's movie, "WALL-E" begins with startling bleakness: epic landscapes of the Earth buried under the waste of endless human wants. This is the way the world ends -- not with a nuclear bang, but with a closeout sale at "Buy n Large," a cinematic hybrid of Target and totalitarianism. Humanity's only monument the mega-mall and mountains of discarded rubbish.
One wonders what a 6-year-old on a summer afternoon makes of this post-consumer apocalypse. But this grim grandeur serves the cinematic purpose of highlighting a humble flicker of revolt -- a lonely robot named WALL-E, pointlessly compressing garbage into neatly stacked cubes. During these excavations, he salvages shiny items -- Christmas lights, Rubik's Cubes, cigarette lighters -- that become (like the random collections made by children) evidence of personality, even humanity. WALL-E spends his free time endlessly watching a videotape of "Hello, Dolly!" -- a tinny, grainy remnant of romance and beauty in a world devoid of both.
Humans have long since evacuated Earth to join an endless pleasure cruise in space. A wall featuring pictures of previous ship's captains chronicles 700 years of evolutionary regression -- from bold space explorers to rotund, adult infants, incapable of walking without aid. Humans move about the space liner in floating easy chairs, consume food in oversized shakes and engage in constant, Facebook-like communication while communicating little but complaint and boredom.
Though WALL-E says only a few words in the movie, his compassion, vulnerability and endearing clumsiness awaken the dormant humanity of everyone he meets, robot and human. Making this believable is a serious cinematic achievement, combining the emotional intensity of silent movies with the remarkable vistas of science fiction.
But there is a deeper purpose to "WALL-E." Without revealing too much of the plot, the spell of self-involved consumption is eventually broken by a combination of music, natural beauty, holding hands and dancing (the space ballet of WALL-E and his lethal love interest is elegant and memorable). Unlike some horror movies, this "alien" spreads a contagion of humanism. Unlike the pessimistic visions of "Westworld" or "2001: A Space Odyssey," the robots revolt in favor of humanity.