I recently had a hankerin’ to revisit the world of, WALL-E, Pixar’s gorgeous CG animated love letter to the human spirit told almost entirely through robots. I thought I understood what the film was about but that’s the thing with revisiting the past, the destination almost always changes depending on where you’re walking from.
At the time of its release there was a certain section of the population who were highly critical of WALL-E‘s political agenda. Oddly enough you can attack the film from both sides of the partisan divide. It’s either a satire of capitalism out of control and in decline made by a bunch of free-lovin’, tree-huggin’, socialists, or it’s a spoof of what a nanny state big government spoon fed society would look like. The freeloading fatsos in the film, for example, presumably can’t do anything for themselves specifically because they were urbanite, no-nothing parasites who needed Uncle Sam to do everything for them -including wipe their ginormous asses. Not to mention that WALL-E was made under the Disney umbrella, just the kind of massive, anything-for-a-buck conglomerate the film criticizes.
They cried hypocrisy, they did!
How can the movie be about two things that diametrically oppose each other? It can’t. You chowderheads.
Forget for a moment about the role government, business and even the environment plays in the film. These are just story elements that help cast the film’s humanity in relief. WALL-E isn’t about them. At its heart it’s the story of what happens when a foreign contaminant is introduced into a perfect system and when we choose not to learn from the past, and live only in the moment.
When we first meet the robot, WALL-E, he is literally digging through our past and selecting moments to learn from. He arrives on the ship as an ambassador of our past but is immediately identified by the janitorial robot, Mo, as a foreign contaminant. Interesting…
Mo attempts to clean WALL-E and bring him “up to code” but is thwarted by WALL-E’s comedic disregard for the rules. The movie makes it clear to the audience that this has never happened before. There are clearly delineated lines which the robot brigade, and the floating wheelchair bound humans never step outside of that WALL-E easily deviates from. Through his interactions with this foreign contaminant, Mo, summons what can only be considered courage, and breaks rank. Mo isn’t the only one affected by WALL-E’s “liberty.” Once the film gives us a view of what the refugee humans have become, gelatinous infantile blobs of flesh waited on hand and foot by automated helpers, we begin to understand that this isn’t just a ship of fools, this is a kingdom under enchantment.
It’s WALL-E who breaks the spell.
Albeit, incidentally. WALL-E is motivated by his selfish needs. He wants to see EVE. He wants to deliver her plant. Needs are something the ship has tried its best to remove entirely from the equation by anticipating them and meeting them before they ever swell big enough to become such disdained notions as: curiosity or desire. In order to see the future and in order to anticipate those needs, the ship needs to have perfect order. The lines must be straight and unbroken. The moment is all that can exist for those in the moment, and for those outside the moment, the timeline must be so predictable that the future’s outcome is predetermined. It’s a world of illusory freedom devoid of consequence. In other words, it’s a prison.
This is where the ship’s captain becomes a major connective thread in the story. Here’s a man that is content to do what satisfies him: read the daily report over the loud speaker and insure the safety of all aboard. He understands nothing of how the ship works, or why. He only understands his function and he has a specific toy to pacify a specific and momentary need. When the plant, the other physical foreign contaminant brought on board, awakens his curiosity he begins to ask questions and through this process humanity takes its first shaky steps out of an imposed childhood. An idea literally supported when later in the film, the captain takes his first shaky steps towards self determination by rising out of his chair and switching the insidious autopilot to manual.
When I first saw the film I thought it was about humans that have become like robots, functional and automated, and robots that are more like humans, impulsive and curious. That’s only part of this.
There’s a key scene that really sparked the epiphany that brought me to write this entry. When the captain finally has a chance to see the plant, not the possibility of the plant, but the real thing, he comes to understand that the plant needs us. We are the caretakers of the Earth and we’ve shirked out responsibilities. Like children, we selfishly thought someone else would clean up that dust ball we left behind. The spell is broken. As we see in the credits sequence the robots who freed us are our equal partners in this new enterprise. The reclamation of our history, our job, and our liberty is thanks to a robot that was everything we once were. The real foreign contaminant on that ship, it turns out, was the past.