CINEMA by Symeon J. ThompsonNews Weekly
The outsider who renews the news of relationship: WALL-E
, August 1, 2015
In 2008, Pixar released one of its most stunning and critically acclaimed films, WALL-E, an enthralling and enchanting science-fiction adventure about love and loneliness, one ambitious enough to have voiceless robots as its leads.
WALL-E and EVE
The year is 2805. The Earth has become one big rubbish heap. Humanity left centuries ago on luxury starliners for a five-year cruise. By then, the world was dominated by global mega-corporation Buy ‘n’ Large (BnL), which also acted as a global government.
Excessive consumerism has, seemingly, brought about an environmental collapse. BnL’s plan called for humanity to vacate the Earth, for a luxury vacation in outer space, while robots cleaned up the planet, making it fit for life again.
All that stirs is a single cockroach and a small, boxy robot called WALL-E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter, Earth Class). WALL-E is the last of his kind, a lowly cleaner with an enormous mission.
But WALL-E is more than mindless metal. He has developed sentience, and with it a deep wonder at what he finds. Instead of just cleaning up, he also collects things – things like Rubik’s cubes and lighters, forks and spoons, and all manner of knick-knacks.
Especially dear to him is a recording of the Gene Kelly musical, Hello Dolly (1969). The movie introduces to WALL-E the idea of love and companionship, but WALL-E is all alone – apart from the cockroach.
Things change when a spaceship lands on Earth, bringing with it EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator), a sleek, feminine, flying robot with a Classified Directive. WALL-E falls in love, and all is going well until he gives EVE a plant in a boot, triggering her directive.
When EVE is collected by the spaceship, WALL-E follows and finds himself aboard the Axiom, the lead starliner of the BnL fleet.
Humans have become morbidly obese, thanks to the micro-gravity, and completely passive, permanently seated in hover chairs, their every whim catered to by robots. They no longer even talk with each other face-to-face, as their every interaction is mediated by computer screens. Even children are entirely cared for by the machines.
WALL-E is an incredibly beautiful, and hilarious, film. Much of it is a voiceless slapstick, reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin, especially Modern Times (1936). Where that film is a comic critique of technology overtaking the workforce, thus creating unemployment and poverty, WALL-E is a poignant parable about technology overtaking our entire lives, rendering us passive and isolated from one another, unable to love.
The director, Andrew Stanton, (A Bug’s Life and Finding Nemo) is a committed Christian. In an interview with World Magazine he speaks of his vision for the film:
“The greatest commandment Christ gives us is to love, but that’s not always our priority. So I came up with this premise that could demonstrate what I was trying to say – that irrational love defeats the world’s programming. You’ve got these two robots that are trying to go above their basest directives, literally their programming, to experience love.
“With the human characters I wanted to show that our programming is the routines and habits that distract us to the point that we’re not really making connections to the people next to us. We’re not engaging in relationships, which are the point of living – relationship with God and relationship with other people.”
This is echoed by Rod Dreher. Dreher’s piece (WALL-E: Pixar’s surprisingly political postmodern masterpiece, at popmatters.com) points out the “Aristotelian, even agrarian, critique of modernity” in the film.
Dreher has previously pointed out the existence of “crunchy cons” (developed in his book of the same name). Crunchy cons see the family as the most essential institution of society; they believe in stewardship, rather than dominance, of the natural world; and they are critical of unrestrained capitalism, seeing it as another form of modern soft tyranny, where the family and the community are pulled apart, leaving only the isolated individual enslaved to a mix of Big Business and Big Government.
Similar ideas are at work in Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si. I lack the competence to comment on the specifics of this sprawling document, but what comes through is a concern for what Modernity has done to humanity, especially the poor and the vulnerable, such as the unborn. More, in arguing for an ‘integral ecology’, Francis emphasises that humanity is part of creation, not separate from it, and that we have a special duty to care for it – but not in such a way that degrades humanity.
WALL-E is a rich film, but it is also a delicate one, full of humour, and full of love, love for humanity and love for creation. It reminds us that we are made to love one another, and that it is this love that gives meaning to our lives.
Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics Circle of Australia (FCCA).
This review is dedicated to Fr Gregory Jordan SJ (1930-2015), RIP. He was an advocate for my writing, and encouraged others to read it.