Monday, February 16, 2009

Wall-E Revisited

This is another post I've had kicking around for awhile, mainly because of the Pixar animated film's place on numerous "best of 2008" lists and the number of conservative and libertarian critiques of the film and it's politics. For those of you who may not remember, Wall-E is the tale of an adorable little robot, who's left alone on an abandoned earth to clean up the garbage of a long gone humankind. Wall-E falls in love with Eve, another robot who has returned to earth to determine whether or not the planet is suitable for humanity's return. In the years since humanity had left earth, they'd grown immobile, fat, and happy, living on luxury liners while robots catered to their every need.

Critics of the film's heavy environmental and anti-business messages miss many of the films larger and perhaps more subtle points. Yes, the film's primary protagonist is Fred Willard playing the role of Buy N Large CEO Shelby Forthright, but there's none of the evil intent typical of movie CEO's. Forthright, who's Buy N Large corporation seems to also serve the role of government, seems to be motivated only to give humanity a luxurious style of living where they literally needn't lift a finger. Leaving earth was supposed to only be temporary, but as most temporary plans go, the temporary turned into the permanent as the job of cleaning up earth was too large for the robot force assigned to clean it up. In fact, Wall-E appears to be the only remnant of that cleaning force, having prolonged his existence through his own ingenuity and spark of individualism.

The film is certainly critical of the excesses of consumer culture and the throwaway existence that goes along with those excesses, but the theme of environmental degradation is meant to be a backdrop, not an urgent message. What Wall-E is really about is people and the unique bits and pieces of individuality that defines our humanity. Ironically enough, Wall-E's individuality is discovered through his scavenging of humanity's garbage, a sure sign that some of this garbage is actually key to our identity as individuals. The film portrays Wall-E to be every bit as human as you or I, even more so than the various human characters he initially meets on his adventure. It's because of Wall-E that the human characters rediscover that spark that makes them human, highlighted by Jeff Garlin's character of the ship's captain. Wall-E helps the captain discover that Mr. Forthright, frightened by an earth that can not be rehabilitated, had issued a secret program directive to Auto, the ship's command robot and autopilot, in order to prevent humanity from ever returning to earth. And it's because of Wall-E that the captain literally leaves his chair and walks around to help save the day.

Even those who enjoyed the film have commented on it's rather dark subject matter, but even that's a characterization I take issue with. Wall-E is notable both for it's lack of real malevolent intent on the part of it's villains and for it's portrayal of an over-fed and overly cared for humanity that's just plain gosh darn nice and pleasant. We discover this early on, as Wall-E reaches the luxury liner and accidentally runs in to a number of humans who treat Wall-E not as a robot inferior, but a being worthy of respect. When I first watched the film, my thoughts drifted to the robot tales of Issac Asimov and the elitist spacers who left the masses behind and treated their robots and the rest of humanity with outright disdain. Unlike in Asimov's universe, the luxury made available because of the robots in Wall-E hasn't chilled humanity's heart, only made them lazy and forgetful as to what makes humanity so special.

In the end, Wall-E helps to save the day and win the metallic heart of Eve, but he also helps humanity rediscover it's spark and provide the motivation to return to earth to start anew. And this is the film's overriding message, not dark, not about the destruction of our environment, and not about big bad corporations. Ultimately this is a movie about how a little robot, humanity's creation, helps humanity rediscover it's soul, which is just such a unique take, such a U-turn from traditional science fiction. Having just been hashing through the mess that is Battlestar Galactica, getting a chance to reflect on Wall-E is more than a welcome change of pace.


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