The first thirty minutes of Wall-E is the most breathtaking and accomplished storytelling Pixar has ever committed to film. Reaching the levels of visual beauty and reference typically reserved for silent films and Mel Gibson, Wall-E perfectly weds high and low, Chaplain, Lang, but most commonly Kubrick. Pixar has always been lauded for the stunning moments of realism in its animated films, but it is hard to tell where the computer ends and where the real begins in Wall-E (particularly since this film incorporates real actors, and bits of actual film footage).
A Disney/Pixar Film
Directed by Andrew Stanton
Left behind to clean a pollutant and trash-choked earth (reminiscent of predictions of the end of civilization under a mass of junk mail), it is the job of Wall-E, a Keaton-like animated trash compactor on wheels, to clean up the mess humans have left behind on earth while they live lives of Margaritaville on a spaceship. Heavy on the anti-corporate moralism without even approaching sanctimony, Wall-E rarely misses a chance to demonstrate how technology doesn’t just modernize a landscape, it changes the essence of the landscape.
It is almost impossible not to reference the Wallace and Gromit short A Grand Day Out when picking apart Wall-E. In the former, Wallace and Gromit, characters you might remember from Curse of the Wererabbit, take a trip to the moon and meet a similarly robot who suffers the same sort of loneliness. But instead of dreaming of love like Wall-E, Grand Day Out‘s robot dreams of skiing. Such stories serve best as subtle reintroductions of humanity to itself. To love another is, in part, to recognize parts of oneself in that other. And in this sense, technology has often been used in film as a doppelganger of humanity.
Because of this, it is breathtaking to see Wall-E encounter the leftover artifacts of humanity and love them, despite knowing nothing about those who created them. What he loves—is it the vestige of human good? Or are these artifacts, much like Pixar’s treatment of a big-hearted little robot, simply a measurement of himself?
Wall-E is Modern Times for the fast food/internet generation, the search for love in a shifting social environment (the story line of any love-in-war story, as well). In this story, however, the technological futurism is rather uninteresting. This seems to indicate a general malaise about the future technological hopes of the filmmakers. Yes, it’s cool, but it is never satisfying. Even the humans come to realize that their existence aboard the Axiom is “surviving” and not actually “living,” despite their opulent luxury.
While Wall-E cleans, humans have degenerated to perpetual consumers, literally unable to stand on their own, much less communicate in reality. And this is, perhaps, where Wall-E falls short. It’s hard to tell whether the makers actually have hope for their fellow humans. Humanity has been reduced to blobs of flesh (indeed, even the animation of the cartoonish humans is unimpressive when compared to the realistic rendering of the leftover earth and Wall-E himself). Ironically, the humans are the least real part of the film. While the filmmakers are spot on in nailing the way technology has the capacity to make human’s forget themselves, it also uses technology to mirror humanity to itself. The technology is supposed to teach the audience a lesson, though it’s unclear what the lesson is: a last minute call to take care of the earth and preserve humanity’s relationship with it? A story of man’s inhumanity to himself? Amusing ourselves to death and futuristic despair?
Perhaps it is the love story in the end, between two robots, that is supposed to redeem everything, and yet, it is false. Inherent in the love found in art is the knowledge that one should cherish it, because at some point, death will part the lovers. Comedy is always delayed tragedy. Yet machines like Wall-E and Eve will love until their bodies literally disintegrate. And even then, their memories might simply be transferred to new bodies and continue. They have accomplished the love that every poet dreams and writers about—to achieve immortality, but through the wonders of technology rather than a greatness of soul.
Wall-E and Eve have no souls except for the vestiges of what is human in them. So what kind of love is this? Kierkegaard called this sort of love the giddiness of the infinite, the feeling of eternity captured in a single moment and focused on a single person. This love, however, is ultimately false because the eternal is impossible for human. Wall-E and Eve love in a way of which only God is capable in the world of Kierkegaard. Pixar doesn’t even try to attribute this to humanity; it’s a sort of metaphysical futurism: hope, not in God, not in humanity, but rather a disembodied hope, or perhaps embodied in machine for as long as its clockwork shall tick.
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Micah Towery is working on his master of fine arts degree at Hunter College in Manhattan. He is the founder and co-editor of The Cartographer Electric.
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