Monday, July 14, 2008

WALL-E as a didactic fable, or not

Sometimes green is just a color.

There has been a surprising amount of the press regarding Wall-e as a 'green' film with a didactic message of environmentalism. But the film's writer and director, Andrew Stanton, has expressed his reluctance towards making a film with an agenda. Then, does it have a message?

There are, at first, very critical messages towards consumerism, mega-corporations, and globular humans. Wall-e’s world was been literally taken over by a Wal-Mart-like chain of stores, Buy N Large; as a result, the Earth was completely covered in trash and humans fled the planet. Little Wall-e is the first wave of a recovery mission to compact the trash, to prepare the planet for eventual human re-habitation. The film’s protagonist is the last running robot on the planet and pursues his job with complete devotion, unaware of the futility.

Clearly there are strong environmental lessons being taught here, yes? We must limit our consumerist tendencies and save the planet! Wall-e is the new Al Gore! Well, sort of.

Andrew Stanton and Pete Docter’s original idea started with just the last robot on Earth doing a futile job– the little, adorable, lone robot trash-compactor gazing at the stars, longing for more—and the pollution aspect of the story was reverse-engineered to create the scenario. The trash arose as a functional story element, rather than to preach to children about littering. Of course, the origins of a storyline don’t negate the presence of preachiness, but understanding the original intentions is valuable.

Then, what of the fat, round humans who float around on their Jetson-age recliners and exist solely in digital screens? Well that’s a little more poignant, but the original intentions, again, are very compelling. During the film’s first couple years of development, the humans were green jelly blobs (very similar to the alien characters in the short ‘Lifted’ that preceded Ratatouille). Eventually it was to be revealed in a sort of Planet of the Apes fashion that they were human all along (!), and that the microgravity aboard the spaceship caused total bone loss. The kingdom of the space jellies was, as Stanton said, “too silly.”

The human characters were then changed into large, infantile creatures. This clarified and streamlined the story, and perhaps made them more likeable. But what’s important to realize is that it was the microgravity that degenerated the bodies of the humans aboard the spaceship Axiom, rather than increasing sloth. But, ah, it is still more complicated.

The human characters are essentially all good-natured and good-intentioned, but they have completely sacrificed individuality for the sake of convenience. They converse with neighbors via computers, they were what they are told is fashionable, they eat what they are told is good to eat (cupcakes in a cup!). Yes, this is quite satirical towards the way many of us live. I know I personally had more email exchanges than actual conversations today. But who is at fault in such a society? Is Pixar trying to tell us that we’re all hopelessly lazy slobs? Is there, altogether, a ‘message’ in Wall-e?

Why, yes, and has nothing to do with littering or global warming: do not let complacency dampen ambition. The humans have become so comfortable, so complacent, that they don’t even turn their heads to talk to one another. It’s just easier to go online instead. It’s also easy to drink liquid food rather than eat, to sit rather than stand, to die slow rather than live fast. I should heed this advice, and you probably should too.

What of the captain? Why return to the razed planet? He doesn’t want to return to Earth so that he can clean it, or to undo the wrongs of a mega-consumerist society, he wants to return because of the possibilities of what might be and for of the excitement spawned by new challenges. His complacency was rooted in his ignorance, as it was for all the humans. Wall-e’s plant is the catalyst that illuminates the significance of ambition, or the humans’ lack thereof.

Wall-e the robot’s experiences mirror this: he is relatively complacent in his daily work and hobbies but somehow knows there’s more to life. Eve’s arrival enlightens him in just the same way the plant enlightens the captain. For Wall-e, the unknown element he has been longing for is love. It is his purpose in life beyond function. For the humans, it’s purpose in life at all, of which they were previously ignorant of. Complacency has been so easy that they never had to consider why they bother living.

Condensed version of what I had actually wanted to say but didn’t quite articulate: it’s just a robot love story and all of the elements exist in support of the story.

I just really liked it.

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the end of something.