Tuesday 12 August 2008


When you can sit enraptured through the first half hour of a film without any dialogue, you know you're watching something a bit special. And WALL-E is certainly that. The quality of the animation is simply superb, containing some of the best computer-generated imagery yet seen in a movie (perhaps the Beijing Olympics organising committee ought to have enlisted Pixar's services).

In the 22nd century, one single corporate entity, Buy n Large, completely dominates the globe. But it is a company that presides over a world drowning in trash. As a quick fix BnL hatches a plan to evacuate humans to the Axiom, BnL's flagship luxury resort/starship. It pledges its robots left behind on Earth to clean up the mess within five years, allowing enough time for the biosphere recovers from the toxic shock.

Go forward 700 years and all that is left is WALL-E, a robot whose activity consists of compressing trash and stacking it in towers that loom over abandoned office blocks. This is a desolate world of flickering BnL adverts, dust storms, and decaying cities. Life consists of WALL-E's cockroach friend and a single plant he finds when he's out trash compacting. Centuries of isolation has allowed WALL-E to break his programming and become sentient. He occasionally finds interesting trinkets among the mountains of rubbish, which he takes back to his home. Among his most treasured possessions is a tape of Hello, Dolly!, which teaches him emotion, body language and social skills.

The one day when he is out foraging a spaceship lands, disgorging a new robot, EVE. Both are initially wary of the other but very soon they develop a close bond. But EVE is a probe sent from the Axiom to determine if the biosphere has recovered. When she scans a plant discovered earlier by WALL-E she stores it and deactivates until her mother ship returns. WALL-E is all alone again. He tries various means of reactivating her but to no avail, and slowly, sadly, he returns to his old routines. Then one day while compacting trash he realises her ship is back. He makes a mad dash back and reaches it just in time to see the ship's robotic arms retrieve EVE. He jumps on to the ship and hangs on for dear life as it blasts off. And so the adventure proper begins.

There's very little point recapping the entire plot - those who want to know the ins and outs can read an overview here.

WALL-E is a lovely film for all ages. But unsurprisingly, as a Disney production it spins a conservative tale. The message WALL-E ends up pushing, despite the intentions of its creators, is more than a gentle green warning. I would argue the film is a meditation on the human condition in industrial (not capitalist) society. In WALL-E's future the total corporate dominance of BnL has resulted in the smoothing out of all contradictions Marxists associates with capitalism. Society has evolved into an advanced communist system. Its human members have entered a permanent state of recline. They spend their days floating about on loungers. They communicate with others via holographic interfaces that hover just in front of their faces. And they are all obese. 700 years of BnL's benevolent direction has rendered them incapable of walking and pretty much doing anything for themselves. Robots have completely taken over the running of society, eliminating the need for human labour. Even the most high-ranking human, the Axiom's captain, is little more than a glorified tannoy announcer.

Basically, the human race has gone soft. Their complete dependence on machines for virtutally everything has infantilised them. Life on a lilo is inauthentic. It is only WALL-E and EVE's struggles against the Axiom's autopilot's attempt to suppress evidence of the plant that sets the human race back on to the path of authenticity. When they return to Earth their first steps on the home world are literally their first steps as functioning human beings. They plant WALL-E's sapling and set about reclaiming the Earth from its polluted state. The credits continue the story through a set of "drawings". We see humans and robots working together to plant seeds, rear crops and animals, drill wells and reconstructing buildings. Gradually the humans in these scenes start losing weight. And the Axiom itself, the symbol of BnL's hypermodernity, comes to be overtaken by vines and creepers as it is left to go derelict, symbolising the turning of humanity's back on its high tech past. People have found themselves again, through the simplicity of going back to the land.

This doesn't prevent WALL-E from being an enjoyable film. But a critical eye is required to see past the soft environmentalism.


Anonymous said...

I hope to see this film (ditched the idea of seeing the X Files movie)as I saw a trailer a couple of wks ago and it looked kinda good.

Anonymous said...

Walt Disney was so far-right it hurts, but by conservative do you just mean the happy ending? All US films have happy endings (usually after immense carnage on the way), so what is different here. The image of fat purposeless dependent humans with only commercialism for friends and a totally destroyed Earth is ironically made by Disney - a companies that pushes commercialism relentlessly. Is this brave of them, or just setting the agenda so they can reclaim it in a subtle Simpsons kind of way?

Phil said...

No, not conservative by happy ending, just conservative in terms of its general message. I'm sure films of a progressive poise don't have to be all doom and gloom!

I think the satire, such as it is, in WALL-E is blunted by the whole return to the Earth stuff. As I said in my review, this is not a critique of capitalism, even a conservative one. We have a society that is run by one all-pervasive corporation. It appears money has been done away with (adverts in the Axiom sequence imply everything is free) and there are no classes - only humans and robots. It is a society where humans are molly coddled from cradle to grave. To all intents and purposes, it is a hyper automated communist society. Except the film doesn't critique social relationships of either the capitalist or communist type. Instead it attacks the dependency we have on industrialism, as if humanity has lost its authenticity because of our alienation from nature. And at the end, the film starkly shows that we can find ourselves again by adopting a gentler, more pastoral life style.

Anonymous said...

I think you're right, in part, but the relationship between the central fantasy of the movie and current politics in advanced capitalist countries is a bit more interesting than you've given it credit for. Some of the contradictions Marxism associates with capitalism are definitely not considered. It is unclear, for example, what has happened to working-class people in general and indeed to the black and brown majorities of the world - the racial makeup of surviving humans might reflect that of the US or some European countries, but everyone else seems to have disappeared. Perhaps they didn't make it on the ship? We can only guess.

However, the movie turns on central satiric fantasy that grossly exaggerates certain tendencies in contemporary bourgeois consumer culture (which is accessible to some slices of the first-world working class as well as wealthier people). Social alienation, fast-food and strip-mall culture, the entertainment industry. It is a negative fantasy of a section of the middle class about what it itself is becoming.

So I disagree with your argument that the Buy-n-Large dystopia is about socialism (which, after all, was buried in 1989 so why make a movie about it in 2008)? It is a critique of contemporary consumer culture, but a critique that doesn't have anywhere to go.

If there were any radical alternatives to bourgeois consumer culture at play in our political world, I suspect this movie wouldn't have been made in the way it was. It would have to choose between being ameliorative and being trenchantly critical. Instead, it suggests a frightening possibility - this culture and economy could lead to the destruction of the world - and ends up offering a sad-sack half solution: maybe if we talk to each other "real-time" instead of texting and recreate harmony with nature and our bodies via green capitalism, things will turn out okay. The upbeat idealism of the end rings hollow if you look at it closely enough, but Disney (which, as a friend pointed out, *is* Buy-n-Large) has correctly bet that most people won't; dissatisfaction with Disneyfied culture is itself marketable, by Disney, as long as the love story has a happy ending.

Phil said...

I didn't argue WALL-E's a critique of socialism, it is a critique of *industrialism*. The social relations we see in the film are neither here nor there. What it is concerned with is the dependence of our species on technology, a dependence that renders the contemporary human experience "inauthentic" and unhealthy.

Paul said...

I watched this film in a cinema full of very bored kids. As eco-fables go, WALL-E was monumentally tedious and as subtle as a bucket of lard.

As such, it was a piece of crude bandwagon jumping by Disney, and I don't really think it's worth the effort you've put into analysing it - however you have clearly put in more effort than the makers of the film did.

Anonymous said...

I'm gonna sound like I'm taking this too seriously, but I've scoured the net and not found many decent left critiques of this film.

The techno fetish of Wall-E is awful. I am surprised that the charge of 'anti-human' seems to be mainly coming from the right in North America.

This story disempowers, ridicules and belittles humankind in a broad brushed way, and sets technology in the heroic spotlight. Technology - 'robots' - who have now become, somehow, intelligent and even sentient. In fact, they're more in touch with their feelings than us. More human than human, perhaps. And more endearing to human audiences, than the on-screen representation of humans themselves. Please.

Why applaud a film whose message is that we cannot be saved without help? What type of message is that? It sounds familiar...

Oh, that's right. That'd be religion.

The project of this film is anti-humanist and anti left.

Tell your children. In the future, as in the past, humans will come to their own rescue. Not robots.

Min said...

Well, this discourse seems to parallel very much to Jean P. Baudrillard's theory of Consumer Society and all thing simulacra; on how the panoptic & repressive effect of social institutions (in the Foucauldian sense) has evolved towards a image-centric, seductive effect of a (post)modern condition of existence.