It's Wall-E's world, we just live in it

Warning: Here bee Spoylers. Here also be Maundering most Endless. And thayr bee fearsome & stoopid Interpuncts.

Twice now I’ve laid down cash for Wall·E, that gorgeous, polysemous, problematic cartoon about an exemplary robot learning to love in an inter-apocalyptic future, and both times I’ve come away with an entirely different opinion of the film. I feel certain that I would form yet another opinion if I watched it a third time, which I probably will. And so on.

The response to Wall·E has been at least as interesting as the movie. I can’t remember the last time a wide-release, lots o’ budget film has generated so much opinion, swinging between hagiography and invective. Much of the vitriol has been leaking from the seams of right-wing critics, who perceive in the images of endless trash-filled landscapes and bloated, sybaritic humans an environmental message that automatically ranks the film as Al Gore-inspired propaganda. On the left, people have picked holes in its supposed environmentalism, pointing out the inherent contradiction involved in a film that will no doubt pump out metric tonnes of landfill in the form of toys, DVDs, memorabilia and so forth. Some find it misanthropic. Others claim that it lets humans off too easily. What is going on?

Much of the outcry stems from the fact this is a children’s cartoon, and although random violence and chaos is permissible in family entertainment, a lesson in the consequences of consumption clearly is not. Children’s minds today seem to work as a moral toilet bowl in which we may safely flush away our platitudes and go on with our excesses, and while the doctrine of limitless achievement gains points from all quarters, limits offend across the political spectrum.

In between the ultraviolet and infrared of political opinion, there are a host of other critics who have picked at the finer points of the story, mostly revolving around questions that cannot adequately be answered. In fact, much of makes Wall-E worth while are its many unanswerable questions. It’s the gaps in the storytelling that have provoked so much debate and opened it up to much larger questions, such as the proper relationship between humanity and nature, and the proper place of humans on Earth.

Eight hundred years in the future, the Earth is empty of life. Most everything is the same shade of brown, the result of particulate junk in the atmosphere and piles and piles of trash strewn across (one presumes) every last square inch of the planet’s landmass. A very brief and clever bit of exposition reveals that humans, unable to deal with the mountains of waste, have left the Earth to live in robot-attended luxury on gigantic spaceships (“Too much garbage in your face? There’s lots of space up in space!”). The task of cleaning up the garbage is left to robots called Waste Allocation Load Lifters – Earth Class, or Wall·Es. The cleanup task is expected to take five years.

Seven hundred years after the human exodus, Earth is still a dump. Life has failed to return, dust storms rage through the dead cities, and the solar-powered cleanup robots have all broken down, except for one. A single Wall·E is still going about his daily routine, compacting junk into cubes and piling them in configurations that resemble skyscrapers but dwarf the abandoned buildings. In a particularly morbid touch, he replenishes his worn-out parts by scavenging bits from the broken-down hulks of his brothers, which litter the landscape.

It is never explained why Wall·E has survived when so many of his counterparts have not, but it appears that he owes his long life to an inquisitive nature and a fascination with the objects around which he spends his days. In his bunker – the ultimate space-age bachelor pad – he stores a collection of beloved objects: lightbulbs, cutlery, Rubik’s Cubes, Zippo lighters, etcetera. He appears to love these objects not for what they can do, but for their sheer beauty. In one clever throw-away moment, he throws away an engagement ring in favour of its case, entranced by the movement of the hinge. It is clear that he only has the dimmest understanding of the purpose behind these objects, and in any event he does not care. He responds to their purposiveness, transmuting the abject into art, deriving his consciousness from the junk that humanity has left behind.

The most poignant parts of Wall·E’s consciousness come a different kind of trash. His prized possession is a VHS tape of the 1969 musical Hello Dolly, which he watches obsessively (on an iPod, no less). He plays the music on his own processor during the day (and hums it to himself, in a series of electronic bleeps and squawks) and watches the movie in the evening, dancing along to the peppy numbers and mooning over the schmaltzy parts. It is both cloying and heartbreaking when Wall-E watches human beings clasp hands and holds his own hands together in imitation. What saves it from complete sentimentality is the sense that he is trying to discover something in the repetition of the act, as if he is investigating his ability to experience certain emotions.

Wall·E is clearly a lonely robot, “but the waiting feel is fine,” as Bob Marley puts it. He is a romantic in all senses of the word; the musical has allowed him to formulate a narrative, and therefore a future, even if that future may be unattainable. From his beloved objects he has devised a narrative which has liberated him from the eternal unconscious present. That is what has given Wall·E his longevity: romance. And romance is all about the endless deferral of gratification.

Humanity, by contrast, has survived by eschewing romance altogether in favour of gratifying all its immediate desires. The remnant of the human race is a spaceship full of infantilized obese people who spend their days on hoverchairs, chatting to people on screens projected in front of their faces and having every last need attended to by robots. In the womblike environment of the Axiom, people live in an eternal present, where time is arbitrary and nothing ever changes. There’s still written language, but its function is purely in the service of advertising and gently coercive messages (“Buy”. “Welcome”. “Try blue – it’s the new red!” “Enjoy lunch – in a cup!” and so forth). Nearly every element of human interaction, including physical contact, all sex and violence, has been obviated and forgotten. It is the reduction of reality to a graphical user interface.

In contrast to the crumbling, junky Earth, the Axiom is a closed system (kind of – there’s still plenty of trash, but it’s vented out into space) in which the gap between soulless human and anthropomorphic robot has nearly closed. We never see the living quarters of any of the people, and after a while it becomes doubtful that people have individual lives in any meaningful sense – they appear to spend all day on their hoverchairs, zipping around the corridors or taking the monorail from one point to another. They don’t seem to perform any labour or useful activity at all, instead spending their days at beauty salons or playing virtual golf. A few shots of a nursery, paired with a throwaway line noting that the population is “unchanged”, suggests that reproduction and population are homeostatic and maintained by the machines that govern every other aspect of their lives. It is a supremely rational world in which the gratification of desire is the constant, and all other parts of the equation are variables. To put it another way, leisure is axiomatic.

Into this tightly coupled system comes Wall·E, who has hitched a ride in search of his love interest EVE, a robot who has arrived on Earth to search for signs of sustainable life. EVE is everything that Wall·E could want in a love object. She is smooth, powerful, and graceful, a near-featureless oval like an egg designed jointly by Apple and Raytheon. When Wall·E shows her his latest find – a living plant that he has found, improbably, in a junked refrigerator – her programming takes over. She grabs the item and returns to the Axiom on a ship. Besotted Wall·E hitches a ride.**

Once aboard, he goes from sanitizer to contaminant. Even though the Axiom is lousy with robots, there are no other Wall·E’s aboard. There are Wall·As (Axiom class) in the bowels of the ship, but they are unseen and monstrous, and their only task is to dispose of garbage in an orderly fashion. Wall·E disrupts traffic and causes no small amount of chaos, but his real role is to confer consciousness on the people and robots with whom he interacts. By his presence he introduces a fissure in the closed loop of the system, and the gap widens until the entire system is forced into catastrophic change. He doesn’t break the intricate rules of the Axiom because he’s plucky, or rebellious, or in-your-face, or any of the things that cartoon heroes usually end up being, but because the rules are arbitrary – not ipso facto bad, but arbitrary. Wall·E’s rule, grounded in a naivete that verges on radical innocence, is essential.

The movie contains two main stories. One is a love story between robots. The other is the story of the reawakening or rebirth of humanity to its true role, as stewards of the earth. There’s never any question of leaving the planet the hell alone, since we made such a hash of things the first time; instead, the humans throw off their technological yoke and return to become farmers and colonizers. In a curious twist, the captain of the ship does not determine to return until he sees what an unbelievable shithole the Earth has become. He falls in love with an idealized Earth presented in the computer databanks (“Define … hoedown”) as an agrarian paradise, his inquiries prompted by a speck of dirt left on his palm from Wall-E’s handshake. When he sees real-time images brought back by EVE, he is initially crushed by the disparity between the golden fields of the past and the desert of the real. But the ugliness of the world produces a counterintuitive reaction: He discovers a desire to return home, to leave the unchanging paradise (“I can’t sit here and do nothing! It’s all I’ve ever done! It’s all any of us has ever done!”) and enter the stream of time. It is not reality to which he proposes return, but the substitution of reality with narrative.

The end credits make this clear. A series of tableaux recapitulates the evolution of Western art, from hieroglyphic-style paintings to video game pixilations. The human race is shown settling the Earth, tending the land, fishing, farming, and rebuilding, all with the help of their robot friends. The technology that had overtaken them has been repurposed to suit their needs. The images resituate the story from the far future into a mythical past; what we are witnessing is the generation of a cultural narrative.

And that’s where I stepped off the Wall·E bus. I belong to the camp that thinks Wall·E is far too kind to the gelatinous babies who turned the Earth into a toilet and then escaped to the comfort of a spa-turned-womb in the stars. Moreover, I found it difficult to buy the notion that people for whom bipedalism is a Nietzschean achievement could suddenly recolonize a barely sustainable planet. It strikes me as a fantasy. It sounds a bit strange to fault a kid’s cartoon as too fantastical, but up until that point I found the movie so satisfying that it seemed like an intrusion from a different, less complex film.

I think a clue lies in what is excluded from the end credits. The elision of certain strands of modernism – we get Seurat but not Picasso, van Gogh but not Pollock – suggests that Wall·E, for all its technological trappings, carries a pre-modernist vision. This is a difficult contradiction to be borne, especially in a movie that has gestated and rendered inside a bunch of giant computers. The imagery suggests that the filmmakers regard the twentieth century, with its monstrous wars and inconvenient art, as an unsuitable subject for the regeneration of a techno-agrarian utopia. And they're probably right; the twentieth century did immense damage in the pursuit of utopia. Best just to send the century away somewhere quiet. It can come back when it's the twenty-first, bearing microprocessors.

*By far the dullest and dumbest reaction I’ve encountered so far is indifference, which is usually voiced in words like “It’s just a cartoon and you’re reading too much into it”.

**I am not giving due credit here to the charm of the relationship that develops between these two, as they hesitantly exchange words – of which they have only five or six at most – and interact using little more than gesture and intonation. Their features are so iconic and demonstrative that their onscreen romance seems more convincing than most human beings.