A Dual-Entry: Modern Times (Charlie Chaplin, 1936) and WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008)

I’ve done dual entries before, namely with remakes (like “Scarface” vs. “Scarface” and the original and remake of Nosferatu), and even taken liberties like including “Shadow of the Vampire” in my “Nosferatu” remake special.  But now Chaplin’s “Modern Times”…and “WALL-E”?!?!  Obviously one’s not a direct remake of the other, and after watching both I realize that there are less direct similarities between the two than I was originally banking on.  But here we are, at the dual-entry I was planning all along, so allow me to explain.  I saw the trailer for “WALL-E” in front of “Indiana Jones,” and even that little 2-minute trailer had me in awe, for the incredible visuals, for just a glimpse of the incredibly expressive title character, and his zany antics and run-ins with futuristic things way out of his league.  That was the only glimpse I had of “WALL-E.”  The only glimpse I had had of “Modern Times” was the one scene from the beginning of that movie, where Chaplin wreaks havoc, and wonderfully so, as an assemblyline man in a terrifyingly industrial factory.  Chaplin wreaks havoc in a factory, WALL-E wreaks havoc in a factory.  I looked at these two images and thought hey, why not watch the two and act all smart in critically analyzing the similarities between the two, how “WALL-E” is a postmodern take on the modernist “Modern Times,” and an update on “Modern Times'” theme of capitalistic and machinistic dehumanization using similar slapstick technique.

Well fuck that.

OK, that’s rough, because all of that is certainly there, but after actually, you know, WATCHING these movies from start to finish, It’s plain as day that both of these movies are so much more than that.  “Modern Times” goes WAY beyond the satirical yet one-dimensional feel of that first segment in the factory, eventually churning out a story and narrative that rivals the great “City Lights.”  And “WALL-E”…well, I’m gonna concentrate most of what I have to say here on “WALL-E” and how profoundly it affected me, but that’s coming up soon.  First, of course, I have to give the classic “Modern Times” its due and at least devote a paragraph or two on what was supposed to be nothing more than my own little personal homework assignment leading up to “WALL-E”, but ended up as something damn near great.

Really, was there ever a more life-affirming filmmaker than Charlie Chaplin?  Of his work I’ve only seen the masterpiece “City Lights” and now “Modern Times”, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such consistently innocent, lovable, and indeed life-affirming work from one man.  Even in the bleak industrial world of “Modern Times” resides the Tramp, clumsy and hilarious as ever…and also just as selfless.  From the start, especially with the famous first segment in the factory, “Modern Times” is pretty much “Metropolis” lite.  The first thing we see is a limitless group of sheep, which dissolves into a limitless group of lifeless workers headed for the factory.  Well, there’s your lifeless workers from “Metropolis” right there, and indeed both that film and “Modern Times” deal mainly with the dehumanization of a capitalistic, urban, and machine-dependent culture.  And while “Metropolis” is dead-serious with the god-like giant machine and the ravenous robot-turned-woman, “Modern Times” basically starts off as a face-off between the Tramp and the world around him in general.  His dealings with the assembly-line (as machine-like as the machine itself) and a malfunctioning automatic feeding machine are wonderful and show Chaplin at the height of his physical and facial prowess as a movement-based comedian.  But of course, “Modern Times” is more than just a criticism of industrial factories, and soon enough, after a nervous breakdown and wreaking all kinds of havoc in the factory, the Tramp is back in his signature too-small suit and bowler hat, being his clumsy self as he pretty much…goes places and ruins things.  Chaplin was the master of being some homeless dude who goes places and ruins things, and I never thought he could make such a shallow character type so vivid each time out.  This time, he and the “gamin” wreak havoc in a department store, in a shed on the outskirts of the advanced society, and at a sing-and-dance night club.  Much of it is vignettes showing Chaplin’s incredible physical ability as he skates, dances, wobbles, and even SINGS (this being his first talkie…and naturally he sings gibberish) his way through varied situations, but like “City Lights,” all these situations are connected by a story and by a relationship.  

I said before that the Tramp is one of the most selfless and innocent of all characters in cinema (look no further than what he does for the flower girl at the end of “City Lights”, in one of cinema’s greatest and most heart-wrenching endings), and there’s no exception here.  In the midst of factories, department stores, and a culture that endlessly buys, here are the Tramp and the gamin, situating themselves on the outskirts of society itself, literally living in a shack that’s falling apart at the seams.  And yet, they’ve made it into a home, not unlike the rundown house that’s unequivocally a home made out of love in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  The relationship between the Tramp and this young girl is one of survival, but also one of utter innocence and friendship and finding value in one’s fellow human being in a society where that’s been drowned out by the value of objects.  In such a soulless and stiff setting, it’s refreshing to see a figure as unstiff and unique and physically expressive as the Tramp.

Now did I say that the Tramp was expressive?  Because put him next to WALL-E and he’s about as expressive as a guard at Buckingham Palace 😛 .  Yeah, I just did a complete 180 by throwing Chaplin under the bus, and that’s not really a great transition to “WALL-E”, but after the wake-up call I got at just how unique “WALL-E” is from “Modern Times”, I don’t know if a smooth transition between the two was possible.  Yes, there’s the Tramp’s antics in the factory, basically remade as WALL-E’s antics in the robot repair shop more than 70 years later, so of course a lot of “WALL-E” uses Chaplin-esque slapstick humor as a launching point.  And it’s just that: a launching point, because “WALL-E” isn’t just an homage to “Modern Times” both in tone and message, but an amalgamation of so many great cinematic devices of the past used to perfection in one 90 minute animated film.

I went into “WALL-E” with just about the worst mindset I could possibly be in: looking for similarities to “Modern Times.”  Well, five minutes in, I see a lonely little robot toiling to collect garbage in an abandoned metropolis.  “Hey!”, I thought, “this is just like 28 Days Later or I Am Legend.”  I see long-abandoned video ads for a five-year luxury cruise aboard the Axiom.  “Hey!,” I thought, “this IS the off-world colonies of “Blade Runner,” promising a chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure!”  When WALL-E finds his way aboard the Axiom, the “people,” uniform in appearance, hover around and buy things like “Blue” for the sake of buying.  “Hey!”, I thought, “this is just like the dystopic future of THX 1138!”  My first impression about “WALL-E” was that it was the most un-original original movie I’ve ever seen.  Or maybe the most original un-original movie.  Either way, I mean that it’s incorporated so many visual and plot elements from many, many great movies of the past so that, in a way, you’ve seen much of it before.  And yet, these elements, whether they’re simple homages or critical plot points, are used in conjunction with one another so creatively that it somehow transcends the status of homage into pure, unabashed creativity.  “Modern Times” is there, both in the over-his-head little robot WALL-E’s antics aboard the immense and awe-inspiring starship Axiom as well as the wonderful relationship with fellow robot EVE.  I already mentioned the post-apocalyptic / class-based society influenced by “Blade Runner”  “Hello, Dolly!”‘s probably never had as much press as here, with a VHS of that musical being WALL-E’s prized possession.  And nods to “2001” are all over the fucking place, from the villainous red eye to the simply awesome images of space to the president’s secret video message to the corpulent captain’s moment of “glory” set to Also Sprach Zarathustra 😆 .  All homages, yes, and some would criticize that as a lack of creativity, but I say, why not mention the best of the best that cinema’s had to offer?  

Bottom-line, what Pixar has done for their latest effort was very brave and very risky.  After the kid-friendly “Toy Story” and “Finding Nemo” and the brilliant stories of “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille” here they are with a movie with very little dialogue, who’s two main characters speak in beeps and whistles, and a G-rated movie concerning, oh, just that little issue of the APOCALYPSE.  The director and animators had the audacity of interspersing live-action footage of “Hello, Dolly!” and circa-22nd century snobs and president Fred Willard amongst the CGI animation.  Already it had the makings of Pixar’s most mature film, and in a way that’s certainly what it is, but it’s also certainly for the little one’s with how lovable a figure WALL-E is.  What started as risk becomes pure reward, and I have no reservation in saying that “WALL-E” is Pixar’s most universal movie, that can speak to children, adults, and everybody in-between.

A word must be said for the now-well known pro-environment, anti-corporation message that abounds throughout “WALL-E”, great for some, far too simplistic for others.  There are those who loved the first segment of the movie, with WALL-E’s curiosity-filled isolation on an abandoned earth, only to lose that love once he jumps ship for the Axiom, filled with what remains of humanity: fat, lazy, hedonistic blobs with not a shred of individuality.  Is it an overly-simple message to the viewer to get out more, to buy less, and to treat the earth with some respect?  Of course it is, but I didn’t have a problem with that.  C’mon, this is a G-rated movie geared toward the little ones, you can’t exactly have the intellectual complexity of a “2001.”  It was straight and to-the-point, but it wasn’t exactly “An Inconvenient Truth” either.  It was a simply moral of the story, set against the backdrop of an incredible setting and incredible story.  No problem.

And anyway, that message played complete second-fiddle to me.  I’ve seen that anti-consumer / industry, pro-environment message too much lately to care much.  Yeah, “WALL-E” does it well, but what I zoned in on was what turned out to be two of the most emotionally-resonant and fully-realized characters I have EVER seen.  It’s just too bad animated robots can’t get Academy Award nominations (I suppose the great sound editor Ben Burtt’s incredible work with WALL-E’s “voice” practically being a shoe-in for best Sound makes up for it 😕 ), because WALL-E and EVE form a bond that rivals any seen on-screen, including, well, the Tramp and the gamin in “Modern Times.”  You can feel the child-like exuberance oozing from WALL-E as he shows the wary EVE around his hovel, and his glee upon putting on the VHS of “Hello, Dolly!”.  You feel the desperation in the little guy to revive his new friend when she unexpectedly shuts down (and the same in her later on, representing the height of character maturation that you couldn’t even get out of a live performance).  I mean, those big, reflective eyes are so expressive the kids watching the movie will fall in love immediately.  And on the flip-side there’s EVE, so visibly angry at WALL-E for one clumsy, Chaplin-like mix-up after another aboard the Axiom, so visibly relieved to see her friend and dare I say, romantic interest, in one piece as they dance in the emptiness of space.  In a setting where the biological humans are gelatinous shells of their former selves, it’s these two robots who are the most human figures this movie, any Pixar movie, and for my money any animated movie altogether, has shelled out.  Conversations made up of nothing more than a computerized “EVAAAA” and “DIRECTIVE” contain as much emotional truth as each robot’s expressive eyes, movement and very nature, and as much love and humanity as your prototypical award-winning live performance, if not more.  And THAT’s where I make the ultimate comparison between “WALL-E” and “Modern Times”: not in the slapstick humor in a mechanistic setting, but in the relationship of pure love and selflessness and innocence between first the Tramp and the gamin, now WALL-E and EVE: each time, two individuals more human than the uniform, soulless consumers around them.  Yes, that environment and industry-related message is an important one, but the ultimate meaning that I got out of “WALL-E” involved learning how to be human, how to be selfless, and how to love, and it only took a couple of cute little robots to get that across.

You really gotta wonder how Pixar is doing this.  “Toy Story” had all the animated innovations and an incredibly clever script, “Finding Nemo” was unparalleled at the time with its beautiful visuals, “The Incredibles” turned out to be a brilliant satire disguised as an action movie, and maybe all of those were topped by the wonderful “Ratatouille.”  And now comes “WALL-E”.  The visuals alone, both with WALL-E’s isolation on a desolate Earth and then the awesome magnitude of space and the hedonistic, futuristic pleasures within the Axiom, are like nothing I’ve ever seen or will ever see.  And the performances (yes, I feel totally comfortable calling the actions of animated robots “performances”) and story are more intelligent, more moving, and more appealing to any age group than in anything Pixar’s churned out before.  Each of those Pixar movies that I’ve loved so much have revolutionized animation in the 21st century, but I truly believe that “WALL-E” has revolutionized cinema in general.  In “Toy Story,” “Finding Nemo,” “The Incredibles,” and “Ratatouille,” Pixar created great, great movies.  With “WALL-E”, they’ve done what not even I thought they could do: they’ve created a masterpiece.

Modern Times: 9/10
WALL-E: 10/10

3 comments so far

  1. patrick on

    Wall-E totally looks like the robot from “Short Circuit”… minus the cheesy 80’s style

  2. Stacia on

    When I first saw a poster for WALL-E, I thought, omg, why are they redoing Short Circuit? Then I started hearing all these Chaplin references, so now I’m intrigued as a Chaplin fan.

    Nice review, but I think you’re a bit off about the selfless Tramp. If you watch some of the earlier (totally) silent Tramp movies, you’ll see that he’s far from selfless. You can watch a lot of them here: http://chaplin-charlie.blogspot.com/

    But if you want to maintain your stance (which is a fine one), I highly suggest my favorite Chaplin film, The Circus. I think it’s his funniest, and it features the Tramp as selfless as ever.

  3. TheltIssuets on

    It’s amazing

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