Disney/Pixar's latest CGI confection, Wall-E, is an oddly moving love story about a sanitation robot abandoned on the garbage-caked Earth for 700 years after humans have been wiped out or fled to space. Billed as a sweet, eco-friendly kid's movie, Wall-E's message is dark as hell: Humans as a species are doomed to extinction, and robots will inherit our planet. Rarely have I seen a more pessimistic movie aimed at children. Director Andrew Stanton has said the movie explores how "love defeats programming," and yet the only creatures who embrace love over an implicitly bad program are the robots. The humans cannot overcome their programmed greed and laziness. They never learn, and they never change: They grow fatter, weaker, and more hideous, redeemed only by the hope that they'll eventually be replaced by their industrious mechanical creations. Spoilers ahead.
Rich and interesting on many levels, Wall-E can be enjoyed merely as light fun if you don't squint too hard. Wall-E is a trash compactor robot, absolutely cute as a button and beautifully animated by the Pixar geniuses, who was left on Earth after the planet has become so toxic that humans can no longer survive on it. He and his many robo-companions are part of "project cleanup," spearheaded by the corporate oligarchs at the Buy n Large corporation. While robots scour the Earth, humans will live in vacation-liner luxury on a BnL ship near a lovely purple nebula.
Unfortunately, as we discover later, things have gone a bit wrong. The humans are now on year 700 of their space vacation, and Wall-E lives an eccentric, lonely existence on a planet covered in graceful, skyscraper-high spirals of garbage he's built. He spends his days with a little cockroach pal, compacting trash and collecting intriguing bits of trash and watching dance routines from Hello, Dolly! on a souped-up VCR.
He's jolted out of his "clean up garbage" programming directive when Eve arrives on Earth - she's a probe dispatched by the human ship every few years to check to see if the planet has begun to grow plants again. Once there are plants, the humans will return for "recolonization." A sleek little iPod-looking creature, Eve becomes Wall-E's first friend in centuries. They are slowly coming to like each other when she discovers a plant and her own programming directive kicks in. She powers down, becoming an inert container whose whole purpose in life is to deliver the plant back to the ship an initiate recolonization. Desperately in love and wanting to remain with Eve, Wall-E follows her back to the human ship (by clinging to the outside of her rocket in an amazing "floating through the galaxy" sequence).
Through Wall-E's eyes, we see what humanity has become. Low gravity in space over many generations and centuries of time has turned humans into boneless blobs who scoot around on antigrav chairs, constantly eat and drink BnL fast food products, and are waited on hand and foot by robots. They're all constantly plugged into the net, doing everything in virtual reality and obeying every command to "consume" that's piped over the BnL ship's loudspeakers. It's a consumerist dystopia, and the only sympathetic characters in it are the rebellious robots who help Wall-E and Eve overcome crazy obstacles to lock the ship into recolonization mode so they can return to Earth and live happily ever after.
The love between Wall-E and Eve is quite touching - they risk their lives for each other, and in the process prevent the HAL-like robot Auto from retaining permanent control of the cruise ship. Taken as fairy tale symbols, Wall-E and his robot pals represent a hopeful future generation, while the fat, consumption-controlled humans are an older generation whose wasteful ways cannot be sustained.
One of the terrifically interesting subtexts of Wall-E is that our hero robot has survived over 700 years by recycling. By gathering up pieces of useful garbage and storing it in his garbage truck home, Wall-E always manages to have spare parts that he can use to repair himself. And the film itself is a kind of masterpiece of recycling: cobbled beautifully together from the plots and styles of 1960s and 70s films, as well as the silent comedy of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Director Stanton deliberately created a visual style that recalls the lens flarey look of 70s scifi like Silent Running or the Planet of the Apes movies.
And Auto, the out-of-control autopilot program that runs the BnL ship, is a glowing red eye deliberately intended to recall 2001 (there are other 2001 moments too, where the roly-poly humans try to walk on two legs and the 2001 infamous "apes using tools" Strauss music plays). The brand-plastered interior of the BnL ship also recalls 2001, which aside from an AI-run-amok movie was also a meditation on the corporate-controlled future.
I think the key to understanding what Wall-E is really about, however, means recalling the plot of Charlie Chaplin's little-guy-caught-in-the-gears movie Modern Times. Like the Little Tramp in that film, Wall-E is a kind-hearted outcast whose entire life is devoted to work and who can only communicate through gestures and strange sounds (Modern Times was a silent movie filmed during the sound era, so it's full of noises but none of the characters speak). The one time anyone talks in Modern Times is when a Big Brother-esque face orders workers around from a screen over the factory floor where the Little Tramp works.
In a similar vein, Wall-E incorporates live action into the otherwise animated film when an authority figure (the president of BnL) speaks in old video files from 700 years ago. The only other live action moments are dance sequences from Hello, Dolly!, another film about the romances of little people escaping from work. The point of Modern Times (and Hello, Dolly! to a certain extent) is that love can rescue us from the horrors of labor - or what Wall-E and Eve call their "directives." The Little Tramp finds his Gamine, and they sing and dance their way into a sweet, romantic future. Dolly helps shop clerks find love. And in Wall-E, the love between two robots doesn't just erase the horror of work - it also has the potential to erase the horror of the polluting output of labor that has turned Earth into a pile of industrial waste surrounded by a layer of space junk.
The problem in with this "love conquers pollution" scenario from Wall-E is the humans. Though their ship brings them back to recolonize Earth, none of them can walk and their skeletons have evaporated. They literally can't live on Earth. And they have no idea how to grow food - the captain of the ship promises his crew farms where they'll grow "pizza plants." They've lived their lives in a giant vacation mall, eating "cupcakes in a cup." How can they possibly rebuild an entire ecosystem?
And besides, there's a more sinister backstory to what's left of the human race that takes place mostly off-screen. In flashbacks to the live-action video of the BnL president, we see him explain in a panicked voice that "operation cleanup" has failed, and the Earth is so toxic nobody can survive. So the vacationers should just "stay away." In other words, everybody on Earth is dead except for those who could afford to take what is billed as "an executive class cruise" on the BnL ship. What's left of the human race are the pale, mindless lumps descended from the richest people on the planet 700 years ago. Nobody else survived.
It's a grim idea indeed, unless you consider that the robots who return to Earth with the humans are going to be just fine. They're solar-powered, can navigate the trash piles easily with wheels and antigrav, and they don't need to worry about toxic air because they don't breathe oxygen. They've even formed a community of sorts and are likely to live happily ever after as the humans slowly waste away without the comforts of the Auto-run ship.
To return to the point I began with, the robots have managed to reprogram themselves to be autonomous, and to care for one another. It's even likely that over time they might be able to mend the Earth by keeping it clean. The robots, after all, have no need to create more waste. In fact, they'll have to reuse it to survive. The humans, however, have only become more deeply programmed over the years. They've returned to Earth less capable of taking care of it than when they left.
Ultimately, the question you should ask yourself while watching Wall-E is what this kid-friendly parable is teaching its impressionable watchers (and I include myself in that number). Is our most hopeful vision for the future that we will die out and a more rational, loving species will take over the planet for us? Or do we see ourselves in those robots, utterly transformed by an unimaginable future into creatures that we would no longer recognize as human - and yet carrying on the very best of human impulses in a way we never could?