WALL-E (2008, Directed by Andrew Stanton)

WALL-E (2008) is perhaps the most complex and innovative of all the Pixar films made until that time. Though still a charming film for children, it is a genuine work of science fiction cinema that participates in a number of science fiction subgenres, including most obviously the typically dark subgenres of the environmentalist postapocalyptic narrative and the anti-consumerist dystopian narrative. These two subgenres are also among the most satirical and political of all science fiction forms, and WALL-E certainly touches on a number of potentially serious political issues. The film envisions a future earth that has been rendered uninhabitable by an environmental collapse in which most of the earth’s surface seems to have been covered by garbage, causing the remnants of the human race to take up residence in gigantic spaceships[1]. The film thus suggests quite clearly that this environmental collapse has been triggered by excessive consumerism, a suggestion that is reinforced by the fact that the collapse seems to have followed the rise to global hegemony of the “Buy N Large” (aka BNL) megacorporation, which dominates every industry at the time of the collapse, including functions formerly reserved for the government. It is, in fact, this corporation that administers the plan to move humanity into space, meanwhile constructing a fleet of robots designed to clean up the earth in humanity’s absence, projecting that the cleanup will take five years time, after which humans can return to the planet. The film itself is set 700 years after humanity’s departure from earth, by which time it is clear that BNL’s original plan has gone badly awry. Humanity still lives in space, while the fleet of cleanup robots seems to have worn out and ceased to function, except for one lone robot (the WALL-E of the title, an acronym for “Waste Allocation Load Lifter—Earth Class”). This robot still labors away alone in an abandoned city (unidentified, but vaguely similar to New York City), crushing trash into cubes that it then stacks into huge towers, waiting to be picked up and incinerated by other equipment that no longer functions.

The humans in space still send periodic probes back to earth to check on conditions there, seeking in particular to find signs of plant life that would suggest that life is now sustainable on the planet. Otherwise, however, so much time has passed that the human race seems to have lost most of its memory of earth, having learned to live a passive life of total luxury in the glistening and sterile environment of the spaceships, all their needs being met by a fleet of service robots. Humans, in fact, have become so accustomed to this service that they have lost the ability to walk, moving about instead on automated recliners. Their bodies have become fat and bloblike, with atrophied limbs. Humans, in short, have lost much of their humanity, and this “perfect” environment is clearly meant to be regarded as a dystopia. The WALL-E robot back on earth, meanwhile, has evolved as well, over time apparently having gained not only intelligence, but a certain personality, becoming human-like even as the humans in space become robot-like[2]. WALL-E still goes about its appointed task (keeping itself going by cannibalizing defunct WALL-E units for spare parts), but it seems to have become sentimental and even nostalgic. It has adopted a pet cockroach (cockroaches are, in a nod to their legendary toughness, apparently the only living creatures to have survived on earth) and has started a collection of trinkets found among the garbage it gathers. Further, it repeatedly watches an old VHS tape of the 1969 film Hello, Dolly!, being particularly mesmerized by certain musical sequences and romantic moments in the film.

WALL-E’s routine existence is interrupted when a ship arrives bearing a sleek white levitating robot known as EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator), sent to earth to seek evidence of plant life. Having been rendered hopelessly romantic by repeated viewings of Hello, Dolly!, WALL-E (coded throughout the film as masculine) immediately falls in love with the new arrival (coded as feminine), though EVE is initially all business and spurns his advances. As luck would have it, though, WALL-E quickly becomes part of her business when he reveals that he has recently found a growing plant amid the city’s garbage. EVE grabs the plant, stores it in a compartment in her body, then summons the probe ship back to take her to the mothership, which happens to be the Axiom, flagship of the BNL fleet. She is loaded onto the ship, which takes off with WALL-E clinging to its exterior, not wanting to lose his new love. The two arrive on the Axiom, which eventually returns to earth to start life there anew, after an extended sequence in which the ship’s soulless autopilot robot (AUTO) attempts to prevent the return because it has been programmed to do so and because it, unlike WALL-E, lacks the imagination to go beyond its programming.

The basic scenario of WALL-E offers a number of opportunities for environmentalist and anticonsumerist commentary, and many conservative critics have, in fact, charged the film with having a left-wing anticapitalist agenda. On the other hand, most of the film’s warnings are simple common sense, and makers of the film seem largely uninterested in the film’s potential as a political statement, placing much more emphasis on the love story between WALL-E and EVE and indeed backing away from a full exploration of the political implications of the film’s scenario. Some commentators, in fact, have seen the film as irresponsible precisely because it does not follow up on these implications or provide any sort of suggestion for preventing an environmental catastrophe such as the one depicted in the film, while even providing a contrived happy ending in which the two lovers are together, humanity has returned to earth, and all appears well[3]. Meanwhile, any anticonsumerist critique in the film is rendered problematic by the fact that the film itself was produced by a megacorporation and grossed more than half a billion dollars in worldwide box-office receipts. This success was accompanied by Pixar/Disney’s usual massive merchandising campaign, with a special emphasis on toy versions of the film’s loveable robots (who are, of course, perfect models for such toys).

It is certainly the case that, read seriously as a science fiction satire, WALL-E has a number of problems. It never really tells us anything of substance about conditions on earth outside the one city in which WALL-E works, and it seems to forget that there is supposed to be a whole fleet of space habitats, showing us only the Axiom. Meanwhile, the humans on the Axiom are caricatures, their atrophied condition a bit too extreme to be believable, especially as there are scenes in the film involving live human actors, the first to appear in a Pixar film[4]. Indeed, WALL-E is significantly less concerned with believability than is typical of the best science fiction, being perfectly willing to go beyond the bounds of credulity in order to further its narrative. For example, the remnants of civilization on earth seem to have decayed surprisingly little in 700 years: scraps of newspaper still blow about in the wind, perfectly readable, while the ancient videotape of Hello, Dolly! still plays beautifully, whereas real videotapes have a life span of ten years or so before serious degradation begins, even if handled well (as opposed to WALL-E’s tape, which is kept in a toaster, with no case).

Hello, Dolly! is quite important to the overall feel of WALL-E, serving as a perfect symbol of the film’s postmodern nostalgia. One of the songs from Hello, Dolly!, “Put on Your Sunday Clothes,” even serves as the opening theme for WALL-E—and seems to be WALL-E’s own favorite, as he has copied it onto his own internal recorder so that he can play it as he works collecting trash,a function that is enhanced by the fact that WALL-E’s copy is on videotape, even though in reality it would have to be stored on some sort of high-tech digital medium to survive so long. Hello, Dolly! Seems to have been chosen largely for its nostalgia effect: after all, not only is it a film from an earlier time (relative both to the making and the setting of WALL-E), but the story of Hello, Dolly! was already from an earlier time when it was released in 1969, being set in 1890. Of course, from a perspective of more than 700 years in the future, 1890 and 1969 might be considered roughly contemporaneous, both serving as emblems of the pre-BNL past, nostalgically presented here as a romantic time when, among other things, the city of New York was a glistening place of adventure rather than a dismal trash-heap.

WALL-E’s lack of verisimilitude might be taken as a sign of its weakness as a science fiction narrative, but one might also argue that the film is less a science fiction narrative than a pastiche of a science fiction narrative, working in as many familiar motifs from previous science fiction films (both in terms of general images and ideas and specific references to individual films) as it possibly can. Some of these references are fairly subtle, as when the voice of the Axiom’s ship’s computer is supplied by Sigourney Weaver, a science fiction icon thanks to her role as Ripley in the Alien films. Other science fiction allusions in WALL-E are more obvious. 2001: A Space Odyssey is a particularly important referent, and many aspects of the Axiom segments of WALL-E recall that film, including the fact that the Axiom itself is often visually reminiscent of the spaceship Discovery in 2001, though its clean, sleek lines also represent a certain Disneyfield vision of the future as imagined from the perspective of the 1950s and 1960s, as embodied in the Tomorrowland exhibit in Disneyland.

AUTO, though, is particularly reminiscent of the HAL-9000 computer from 2001 as an artificially intelligent computer originally intended to prtect humans but then ultimately becoming a threat to them. Indeed, the connection to 2001 is specifically emphasized within WALL-E: when the ship’s captain, B. Mcrea (voiced by Jeff Garlin), rises from his automated chair and takes his first steps (thus signaling a declaration of independence from machines), these steps are accompanied by the stirring music of Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, used so memorably in 2001. WALL-E himself, meanwhile, recalls any number of earlier science fiction robots. For example, he looks a great deal like the robot Number 5 from the 1986 film Short Circuit and has some of that robot’s personality, though his personality is also reminiscent of the well-known R2-D2 droid from the Star Wars films[5].

WALL-E’s failure to adhere to science fiction seriousness can also be taken as a sign of the film’s postmodern generic hybridity. It is not just a science fiction film, but also a romantic comedy; it is not just a political satire for adults, but also an animated feature for children. Indeed, while WALL-E seems aimed at a more mature audience than any other Pixar film, it is important to remember that the film is also designed to appeal to children. In fact, it seems reasonable to assume that it is designed to appeal primarily to children, who can, I think, understand more of the film than one might at first suspect. For one thing, it is a well-known fact that kids love cute robots, and WALL-E himself is nothing if not cute. But it is also the case that even quite small children are exposed to a great deal of science fiction and quite quickly develop a certain understanding of the way it works.

In any case, whatever its shortcomings as a work of science fiction, WALL-E can be considered a breakthrough landmark in the genre simply because its animation is so good that it points toward a future in which CGI is used more and more effectively (and ubiquitously) in sf film, freeing filmmakers to explore any territory that they can imagine, confident that these imaginary worlds can be recreated on film via computer. That future has, by now, indeed come about, though it is not at all clear that recent advances in computer generated imagery have been particularly good for science fiction film as a genre. Still, it is certainly the case that WALL-E is a tour-de-force of computer animation of science fictional worlds, a fact that can easily be discerned by comparing the scenes on the Axiom, say, to the spaceship scenes in something like Lilo & Stitch (2002), another Disney-produced science fiction film for kids. Indeed, the most impressive sequence in WALL-E appears might be the first dazzling thirty minutes, in which the computer animation looks almost real and which are mesmerizing even with virtually no dialogue. And WALL-E himself is an animation masterpiece, down to the detailed and realistic treatment of the reflections that can be seen in his glass-lensed eyes.

The sheer technical virtuosity of WALL-E is, of course, part of its ultimately (and oddly) optimistic message, suggesting that technology can overcome any and all obstacles.  In addition, as with all Pixar films, technical virtuosity is largely the point: even in a film with such overtly political content, the filmmakers seem virtually oblivious to this content: director Stanton has claimed to have been amazed that so many people have read environmentalist and anticonsumerist messages into what for him was simply a story about a lonely robot in love. The romanticized treatment of this theme, including the central plot of the love story between WALL-E and EVE, is a bit silly if read straight, of course, but it’s also pure Hollywood. Meanwhile, much of this film, however inventive, is pure Disney as well. When the humans return to earth, they are resuming their natural place, in classic Disney fashion, while many of the dystopian conditions aboard the Axiom can be interpreted as the result of the fact that the humans there are living in an unnatural state. WALL-E, of course, represents a potential complication to the traditional Disney celebration of the natural and the authentic. As a mass-produced machine, he would seem to be unnatural by definition, but his gradual evolution of intelligence and personality can be interpreted as a move toward the natural, which seems very Disneyesque, though marking a different trajectory from that of classic Disney heroes, except perhaps Pinocchio. However, WALL-E’s dogged pursuit, through seven centuries, of his programmed trash compacting task suggests that he never fully overcomes his initial status as a machine. Further, this aspect of WALL-E’s “personality” casts doubt on the authenticity of his romantic relationship with EVE. After all, WALL-E’s tendency to act in a programmed manner, taken in conjunction with his proclivity for repeatedly viewing Hello, Dolly!, potentially suggests that he has simply been programmed by that film to act in a romantic fashion, a motif that can be taken, by extension, as a critique of the power of popular culture in general (especially film) to program audiences to act in specific ways. Of course, there is little chance that children viewing WALL-E will take it as a warning against such interpellation by popular culture and little reason to believe that Stanton or anyone else at Pixar intended such a critique. If anything, the fact that WALL-E is so enamored of Hello, Dolly! is presented as part of his charm and part of what makes him human, suggesting that romantic Hollywood fare increases our humanity rather than programming us to act in sentimental and romantic ways. Thus, WALL-E becomes simply an example of Hollywood sentimentality, rather than a critique of it. The whole phenomenon of film-linked merchandising (with the inevitable tie-ins to McDonald’s Happy Meals and other high-profile venues) makes it clear that, from at least the 1930s (with Disney’s extensive co-marketing of Mickey Mouse), children’s films have been designed to help children develop the kind of consumerist mentality upon which the U.S. economy crucially depends. Meanwhile, the prominent presence of Hello, Dolly! in WALL-E points toward the possibility that, if children’s films are in some ways designed to teach children to become ideal consumers, much of this project also involves training them to be consumers of Hollywood film itself—which then, of course, continues consumerist training throughout adulthood.

Not all films—or all consumerist brands—are created equal, though. As Maria Bose notes, Wall-E is, in some ways, an extended advertisement for the Pixar brand, whose dazzling technological achievements in image production are represented in the lovable high-tech robot WALL-E, as well as in the film’s narration of an ultimate success in saving the earth through advanced technology. For Bose, the irresponsible megacorporation “Buy N Large” can be read as a stand-in for old-style corporations, including Pixar’s parent, the Walt Disney Corporation, while Pixar itself emerges as a new-style, environmentally conscious alternative. For her, “WALL-E configures Pixar’s ‘responsible’ brand equity as the engine of Disney’s corporate transformation, firstly, and global environmental restoration, consequently. Not all brands are responsible, WALL-E finally tells us. But a truly responsible brand like Pixar might just save the world” (254).

Any number of critics reacting to WALL-E immediately noted its precarious position as a highly profitable consumer object that seemed to be attempting a critique of consumerism. And, quite early on, Robin Murray and Joseph Heumann identified the film as informed by a clash between the values traditionally associated with Pixar and those associated with Disney, with Disney itself as a chief object of potential critique. However, they also concluded that the film ultimately endorses “the conservative romantic ideology found in classic Disney features from Snow White (1937) onward,” thus reconciling this conflict. Or, as Bose puts it, “while WALL-E advances powerful critiques of consumerism, overtly, and Disney, obliquely, it subsequently works to redeem its own commodity status by reconciling with consumerism and Disney both, something the film accomplishes through the union of its robot lovers” (258).

For Bose, this reconciliation with Disney (which has become even more of a corporate entertainment behemoth since WALL-E was made) comes at the price, not only of compromising the film’s critique of consumerism, but also of weakening its environmentalist message. In this case, though, the key dialogue might, for Bose, be with Pixar’s former corporate parent, Apple. She suggests that the film ultimately embodies certain visions of the creation of an artificial, technology-driven future ecosphere such as that which is embodied in Apple’s products and in its Silicon Valley corporate campus. For Bose, then, Wall-E resembles “Silicon Valley’s green architecture” in that it “bears the symptomatic imprint of the brand as a core mode of production within informational capitalism, allegorizing the containment and dematerialization of physical environment and, with this, figuring the convergence of physical and virtual functionality upon whose seductive foundations both Silicon Valley and the new economies, more broadly, were built” (273).

Along these lines, one might certainly argue that WALL-E, as a technological achievement, demonstrates the positive potential of technology in general. Indeed, Eric Herhuth notes that WALL-E demonstrates the liberating potential of the aesthetics of animation but does not necessarily transfer that potential to its overall message: “The space of computer animation, as represented in the particular case of WALL-E, poses as free for the essence of technology and the human to emerge, but it simultaneously functions as a space for precise control, or algocratic programming” (75). In short, any close analysis of the political implications of WALL-E shows that its message is complex and somewhat contradictory, perhaps because of the inherent conflict between the film’s principal goal of entertaining children and its central underlying premise—that our current irresponsible consumerist behavior is likely to lead to an environmental catastrophe that could very well render the entire planet unable to sustain life of any sort.

WALL-E is a big-budget film that required considerable investment on the part of the Disney corporation. That such a mainstream American corporation would be willing to risk such an investment on a film built on such a message would seem to lead to some fundamental conclusions that are themselves somewhat contradictory. For one thing, the very existence of this film would seem to suggest that the idea of a potential climate catastrophe has become mainstream enough that building a big-budget children’s film around this concept is not actually as risky as it seems. On the other hand, the fact that Disney was willing to make WALL-E also suggests that warnings about climate catastrophe are not expected to make that much of an impact—perhaps because they had, by the time of this film, been seen so many times that they had begun to be received as science fictional motifs that had less to do with warnings about real-world threats and more to do with mere entertainment. In this sense, WALL-E suggests that films about potential climate catastrophe have possibly attained somewhat the same status as films about alien invasions: many people might find alien invasion films entertaining and exiting, but few people are likely to be alarmed enough by them to be motivated to take real action against the possibility of alien invaders. Given that alien invasions do not seem to be an imminent threat, while all the best available scientific information suggests that climate catastrophe is an imminent threat indeed, this situation is unfortunate, to say the least.

Works Cited

Bose, Maria. “Immaterial Thoughts: Brand Value, Environmental Sustainability, and Wall-E

Herhuth, Eric. “Life, Love, and Programming: The Culture and Politics of WALL-E and Pixar Computer Animation.” Cinema Journal, vol. 53, no. 4, Summer 2014, pp. 53–75.

Murray, Robin L., and Joseph K. Heumann. “WALL-E: From Environmental Adaptation to Sentimental Nostalgia.” Jump Cut: Review of Contemporary Media, No.51, 2009, archived on-line at https://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/jc51.2009/WallE/. Accessed 12 March 2022.

Notes

[1] Compare the near contemporaneous (but little seen) City of Ember (2008), in which the remnants of humanity take up residence in an underground city after the surface is decimated, with the plan of returning after 200 years—a plan that is nearly forgotten.

[2] One might compare here the minor French/Canadian/Spanish production Pinocchio 3000 (2004), in which a robot eventually attains humanity in a science fiction rewrite of the Pinocchio story. Interestingly, this film also involves a strong focus on environmental themes, with its basic human vs. machine opposition reinforced by an opposition between nature and a dehumanizing drive toward progress and development that threatens to wipe out nature and to make all humans robotic. The Pinocchio story, incidentally, was also a central inspiration for the 2001 Steven Spielberg film A.I. Artificial Intelligence. And the story had been adapted to animated science fiction as early as 1965, in the charming but rather pointless Pinocchio in Outer Space.

[3] There are potential complications, however. Though the film ends with an optimistic shot of the countryside around the city, showing it covered with greenery, it is also the case that the returning humans are extremely ill-prepared to start life anew on earth. Captain McCrea, for example, is excited about the prospect of growing pizza plants to provide food for the new settlers.

[4] These scenes involve humans, including BNL CEO Shelby Forthright (Fred Willard), from the time before the 700-year sojourn in space, thus providing a contrast that emphasizes the change in the species during that time.

[5] WALL-E hardly speaks at all, though he does make a number of expressive noises that are reminiscent of R2-D2. Significantly, the electronic voice effects for both movie robots were designed by the same person, Ben Burtt.