WALL-E: A World Without Us
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Alan Weisman's recent book The World Without Us carries out a fascinating thought experiment, absenting us from the planet and then taking us through decades and centuries into the far future to see what befalls the works of humans. We watch as our cities and infrastructure crumble before the forces of insects, microbes, plants and rust and discover that our most lasting legacies are not our great works of art and literature, but our trash, our chemical and radioactive pollution and our television and radio broadcasts. The reader is left both humbled and awed at the uncontainable power of nature.
In Pixar's latest outing, WALL-E, the viewer is also treated to a vision of the far future, but is left instead with an unjustified faith in humanity but no real appreciation for or understanding of the natural world.
When the film starts the world has been without us for over 700 years, and all that remains are desolate cities and a planet covered in unimaginably massive piles of trash. The only activity we see is that of a lone robot named WALL-E (an acronym for Waste Allocation Load Lifter -- Earth-Class), the last of an army left behind by the Buy 'n Large corporation to clean up the planet while humanity vacations on its corporate cruise starships far off in space.
The opening sequences of the film are breathtakingly ghastly, like no post-apocalyptic vision ever put on film. The cityscape is not just deserted, it is disappearing under a cancerous envelope of debris, and even orbital space is a cloud of satellites and junk. And everywhere we see the entity responsible for most of the despoliation: the Buy 'n Large Corporation, which appears, in the final stages of humanity's days on Earth, to have owned and run absolutely everything, making Wal-Mart look like a dime store operation in comparison.
Amid this ravaged world, WALL-E fills his days compacting and piling trash, but also collecting and relishing objects that delight and mystify him: egg beaters, Rubik's cubes and a television with which he watches Hello Dolly! over and over again.
His centuries of routine are disrupted when he finds a tiny green plant. Then a gigantic spaceship deposits the egg-shaped EVE (or the Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator) robot, which proceeds to scan the city -- and when things surprise or annoy her, blow them up. WALL-E is smitten by her lethal charms, and when he shows her the plant, she immediately scoops it into herself and shuts down, awaiting recovery and return.
EVE's mission, it turns out, was at the command of the Buy 'n Large corporation, and the ship that picks her up (and to which WALL-E clings in a bid to rescue her) delivers them to the Axiom, one of the gigantic cruise ships launched centuries before.
Unsurprisingly, given that Buy 'n Large (BnL) is still our dominant institution, humans have learned absolutely nothing from their experience as environmental refugees. The Axiom is populated by identically-dressed and morbidly obese humans carried about on multi-media hoverchairs, their every desire met by a fleet of robots and the omnipresent BnL, which exhorts them to continue to consume every waking hour. And of course, the unceasing consumption continues to produce vast amounts of trash, which is regularly compacted and expunged from the ship.
But through his efforts to rescue EVE, WALL-E gradually disrupts the consumerist and media-soaked ecology of the Axiom. Deprived of their non-stop multimedia two of the humans begin responding to their environment as if for the first time -- appreciating beauty, taking physical enjoyment from a previously neglected pool and actually conversing with each other.
In the end, the humans land on Earth and stumble into the light, determined to farm and support themselves, with no apparent role for the Buy 'n Large Corporation. They have liberated themselves from the corporation and from compulsions of the marketplace.
As satisfying as this anti-corporate and anti-consumerist theme is, it's hard to take too seriously.
After all, Disney is the world's premier vertically-integrated entertainment and merchandising machine. Already the market is crowded with WALL-E toys and other crap, much of which will eventually wind up in landfills. And speaking of irony, what exactly are we to make of the "credit cookie"? Following the closing credits and the Pixar and Disney logos, we once more see the Buy 'n Large logo while its jingle echoes in our ears. It's clever but a bit too cynical by half.
But writer-director Andrew Stanton's most serious difficulty in articulating a theme the audience can actually identify is that the animators are so loving in their attention to details on robots and spaceships that -- unlike his previous Pixar film Finding Nemo -- they appear to have spent little effort thinking about natural processes.
It's annoying but forgivable that WALL-E finds the plant in a closed refrigerator, apparently sprouting without benefit of sunlight, or that he holds the plant out to show to EVE while they are floating in deep space, presumably at temperatures near absolute zero, with no ill effects.
But this lack of understanding of how nature actually functions makes the conflict driving the climax of the movie ultimately without purpose. The humans return to Earth, but the viewer can't help but wish that they'd just stayed away.
The Axiom's captain sees footage of Earth and becomes taken with the idea of farming, believing they need to return to Earth to "help it out." Except -- that's exactly what they don't do: the closing credits feature a nifty bit of animation employing artistic styles ranging from cave paintings to impressionism, showing the familiar arc of civilization -- from fishing to farming to the construction of new cities, except this time we have robots doing a lot of the work for us. But at no point is there a hint of humans actually "helping" nature -- we're just helping ourselves again.
In other words, as far as we can see and Pixar can show us, humans will do exactly what we always have done. But if we do, the results will not be what we see here: the streams will not magically fill with fish, or fields with verdant flowers, trees and plants.
If the humans had instead never returned, however, the planet Earth of WALL-E might have had a chance. As Alan Weisman shows us, at that point when the world is actually "without us," nature will in fact eventually break through the insults we've laid over her and finally disguise all our works beneath green foliage. She will recover -- but of course not replace -- much of what was destroyed, and through cycles of glaciation crush every last trace of us.
But I guess that wouldn't make a very good movie. Or sell any merchandise.
Michael Dudley is a research associate at the Institute of Urban Studies.