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Friday, August 8, 2008

Wall-E, Batman, and Why America Hates Itself.

Posted by Erik Henriksen on Fri, Aug 8, 2008 at 9:50 AM

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I was on I-5 S last week--it was hazy and hot and somewhere between San Clemente and San Diego--when a friend and I started talking about this summer's big movies. Which means, of course, that The Dark Knight came up, and so did Wall-E, and so did my admittedly unoriginal observation that those two movies--two of the biggest of the year--are also two of the darkest films I've seen in a long time. Wall-E critiques American culture with pitch-black humor, while The Dark Knight revels in nihilism and says a few damning things about our fine nation.

My friend asked me if I thought the fact that these two movies are currently doing so well was because they've tapped into the zeitgeist--if it wasa case of them reflecting how Americans are currently feeling about themselves. And yeah, I think that might be the case, but only partially: Wall-E first started its preproduction phase over a decade ago, while The Dark Knight was in the works at least as early as 2006. In other words, the films reflect what people have been thinking about for the past few years--so while they might feel particularly relevant right this second, they also sum up the way things have generally been for a while now.

Starting tonight and going through Sunday, both films will play as part of a double feature at the 99W Drive-In. It's going to be a really amazing double feature, I think, for a whole bunch of reasons I'll go into after the jump. Also after the jump: Spoilers, obviously, which will not matter to 99 percent of the human race, since just about everybody has already seen these films at least once. But if you're one of the three people on the planet who, for whatever reason, have yet to see either The Dark Knight or Wall-E? You might want to avoid the clicking.

"Wall-E is a classic, but it will never appeal to people who are happy with art only when it has as little bite as possible," David Denby wrote in The New Yorker a little while ago. In that same piece, he reviewed The Dark Knight, with a decidedly less complimentary tone: "The Dark Knight has been made in a time of terror, but it's not fighting terror; it's embracing and unleashing it--while making sure, with proper calculation, to set up the next installment of the corporate franchise."

I'm in full agreement with Denby with regards to Wall-E, a film that I found pretty stunning when I saw it: Pixar has made a business out of crafting amazing and beautiful and involving narratives, but Wall-E marks the first time they've paired all those things with a really strong, and sometimes even vicious, sense of satire and commentary. Humans in Wall-E's future are dim-witted, quivering, wobbling balls of fat who're helpless without their Rascals and feedbags, and who're utterly dependent on noisy video screens that bombard them wherever they go. These puffy, slack-jawed creatures float around though oblivion, clueless to the massive destruction--both environmental and intellectual--that they've been party to. I've hard a lot of people compare the second half of Wall-E to Mike Judge's Idiocracy, a statement that makes sense on a surface level but doesn't really hold water: While Judge was content to point and guffaw at how slovenly and stupid humankind (in general) and Americans (in particular) have become (and, no doubt, will likely continue to be), Wall-E's writer/director, Andrew Stanton, sees redemption and potential in us yet, and he ends his film with a note of hope--thankfully it's one that, thanks to all that we've seen for the preceding hour or so, doesn't feel entirely forced.

There's no such optimism in The Dark Knight, a film so angry and sad that when it finishes, you walk out of the theater feeling bludgeoned and bruised. True, some of this might have to do with that fantastic and relentless BADDABUM-BADDABUM BADDABUM-BADDABUM BADDABUM-BADDABUM score, by James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer, but mostly it's thanks to the film's moody, pessimistic darkness: It's useless to be a hero, The Dark Knight proclaims, and dangerous anarchy, not sterile peace, is the true nature of things. Heath Ledger's Joker is terrifying throughout, and the reason he's so scary is that Ledger conveys the sense that the villain is the sanest--or at least the most honest--character in the film. While Bruce Wayne and Alfred and Commissioner Gordon (and Harvey Dent, before he, too, is sucked into the Joker's world of pointless pain and rage) seem convinced that, if they only adhere to a facade of nobility and honor, they can change the world for the better, The Dark Knight spends most of its two-and-a-half-hour runtime showing us exactly why they're fools. The Joker spills chaos and hate and blood into Gotham's streets, and his motivations are as irrelevant as how he got those scars: We never find out the reasons for either his actions nor his scar-tissue smile, simply because we never need to. All we need to know is that the Joker exists, and that even Batman is utterly helpless in the face of so much destruction. The Dark Knight ends with Batman having become nothing less than a criminal, one loathed by the very people he protects, one who literally runs away like a useless coward, defeated and afraid. While the last we hear of the Joker is his malicious, triumphant laugh--one that's abruptly cut short, in a moment that, like so many others, calls to mind the premature death of Ledger--the last we see of The Dark Knight's ostensible hero is Batman driving away as fast as he can, with Gotham's cops at his back and, it seems, nowhere to run to.

A recent issue of Entertainment Weekly delved into the whole phenomenon of The Dark Knight's massive box office success, reading no small amount of political relevance into its superhero storyline. Steve Daly had a really sharp write-up in which he called The Dark Knight "a thoughtful, politically astute treatise about America's image problems since the U.S. escalated the war on terror and invaded Iraq," which might be pushing things just a bit into the hyperbolic side, but really, not by much. (In Benjamin Svetkey's accompanying Q&A with co-writer/director Christopher Nolan, Nolan shares a particularly good realization about Batman, as thought up by one of the film's stars: "Michael Caine had a great line: 'Superman is the way America sees itself, but Batman is the way the world sees America.'")

To meander my way back to my original point--about whether these movies are doing so well now because of their content, both subtextual and obvious--there's another bit in that Q&A I really like, in which Nolan talks about writing The Dark Knight: "We just write from the perspective of the world we live in, what interests us and frightens us. And one of the things we're very aware of right now is the idea of society breaking down." That's a huge theme in The Dark Knight, a film that gives us a ringside seat to the trumped-up, blockbustered-out spectacle of a city (and a world) falling apart, but it's also a pretty big one in Wall-E, a film that looks at the aftermath of such an cataclysm, one in which humankind has survived, albeit in body if not in spirit or mind. (Luckily, those rare, possibly imaginary best parts of humanity have somehow been transferred to the film's decidedly non-human protagonists.)

It's kind of depressing to think that Wall-E and The Dark Knight are succeeding because those elements of their stories are resonating with us so strongly. But I can't decide if it's more or less depressing to think that us feeling lousy about ourselves and our existence is hardly a new development: The Dark Knight and Wall-E, with their subtexts firmly in place, were in the works for years before they came out this summer, and not long ago, a soul-crushingly dark book, Cormac McCarthy's The Road, won not only the Pulitzer Prize but (more tellingly) an Oprah's Book Club sticker. The lone upside to how we're apparently feeling offers a bit of comfort, at least: Things might not be good, and there are definite reasons why these sort of movies and books are doing so well right now--but if nothing else, we're getting some really good books and movies out of the deal.

Above image PhotoShopped by Chris Astheimer.

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