My Problem with Wall-E

So now I’ll bet you’re wondering why I’m picking on Pixar. They produce quality entertainment, don’t they? Haven’t they produced some classics as well? Sure. Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, and Toy Story 3 are my favorites. These I would say belong on the Great Mount Rushmore of family movies. And all from the same company. Quite an accomplishment.

Wall-E is a classic too. But it’s one of those frustrating works of art that present a startlingly beautiful vision only to mar it with contemporary didacticism. It’s a story with, among other things, an instructive and very important message that we should all take heed of before it’s too late. The presumption here, of course, is that the filmmakers can actually deign to instruct us on anything. The problem here, of course, is that the filmmakers are wrong. Dead wrong. If anything, they get a little bit evil-minded about it as well. And those of us who realize this (like me) have no choice but to leave the theater with fists clenched, hoping that not too many people will be suckers for this little power play that is Wall-E.

So now I’ll bet you’re wondering why I’m picking on Pixar. They produce quality entertainment, don’t they? Haven’t they produced some classics as well? Sure. Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, and Toy Story 3 are my favorites. These I would say belong on the Great Mount Rushmore of family movies. And all from the same company. Quite an accomplishment.

Wall-E is a classic too. But it’s one of those frustrating works of art that present a startlingly beautiful vision only to mar it with contemporary didacticism. It’s a story with, among other things, an instructive and very important message that we should all take heed of before it’s too late. The presumption here, of course, is that the filmmakers can actually deign to instruct us on anything. The problem here, of course, is that the filmmakers are wrong. Dead wrong. If anything, they get a little bit evil-minded about it as well. And those of us who realize this (like me) have no choice but to leave the theater with fists clenched, hoping that not too many people will be suckers for this little power play that is Wall-E.

Let’s first discuss what’s good about Wall-E. It’s basically a well-worn love story formula dressed up with such striking and original storylines, imagery, and characters that the formula becomes new again. Please consider this for a moment: taking something old and making it new. It is like being born again. People love it. And they should. It’s one of the magical things about the film-going experience.

So what is this formula? Simple:

It starts with a broken heart. All heroes and heroines of love stories have to have a heart broken in some way or another. We will use two classic examples from American cinema to help illustrate this point and also to show how truly great Wall-E (almost) is.

So, back to the broken hearts. Wall-E is cute and perky and cleaning up an abandoned planet all by himself. It’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it. Our hearts break just thinking about it. Most importantly, however, Wall-E is lonely. Rick Blaine of Casablanca doesn’t stick his neck anymore for nobody. Why? Some dame left him in Paris during the Nazi invasion and didn’t say why. This is why Rick is lonely. Rachel Lapp, the Amish woman in Witness, is lonely too. Her husband just died. That would make anybody lonely.

Then the broken heart stumbles across a something-or-other, a question mark, something that disturbs the melancholy status quo in which the broken heart lives. And it has to be a welcome disturbance from the audience’s point of view. In Wall-E’s case, it’s the finding of the sprouting plant. For Rick, it’s the letters of transit allowing two passengers to board a flight to Lisbon. For Rachel, it’s the fact that her son witnessed a murder in a Philadelphia airport.

After this, enter broken heart number two. Note that this heart shouldn’t be as broken as the first, or vice versa. If they are both equally lonely, two things could happen, both bad. Either they ecstatically fall into each other’s arms, get married, have kids, and that’s the end of the story after twenty-five predictable minutes. Or the lovers will both seem so much like losers that the audience will have a hard time caring about them. In Wall-E’s case, Eve is just doing her job. Sure, she’s far from home and all by herself and probably pretty lonely as a result. But she is certainly in a better place emotionally than Wall-E at the film’s onset. In Casablanca, Rick’s ex-flame Ilsa still loves him and feels awful for dumping him in Paris, but she’s with her husband now, a man of impeccable honor and bravery. As for Witness, it’s the reverse. John Book is more the loser. He’s without a family, and he’s afraid of responsibility but clearly not happy without it. Also, according to his sister, he likes to gripe about his job on the Philadelphia police force whenever he drinks too much beer.

At this point, the two broken hearts, because of this something-or-other, are drawn into some conflict they didn’t expect. They are forced to cooperate out of necessity, to be brave and to grow as characters, and to realize that they meant more to each other than they originally thought. Further, this conflict has to be part of something pretty big. For Wall-E, it’s contending with Auto and his minions on the spaceship Axiom. But what’s really at stake is humans getting a second chance at populating Earth. For Rick Blaine, it’s holding off Nazis until he can get Ilsa and her husband on that plane. The greater struggle is World War II (obviously) as well as whether or not he’ll stick his neck out for anyone again. And for John Book, it’s preventing three crooked cops from killing him and their young witness. But in a deeper sense it’s about resisting the intrusion of modern corruption upon a world that insists on keeping itself pure.

The ending can take many different guises, but has to resolve the conflict in some way. In the two older films, the lovers part, presumably never to see each other again. But the love these people feel for each other helps mend their broken hearts despite their separation. It’s good to be loved, you know?

Wall-E, on the other hand, has the kind of miraculous happy ending you’d expect from a rated-G film. And that’s fine. Due to the snowdrift innocence of the two principals, any other ending would have been inappropriate.

I place Wall-E alongside these two classics because Wall-E is also a classic. Its vision is genius, the plot very tight and believable, and the imagery unforgettable. The ballet sequence in space in which Wall-E dances with Eve with the help of a fire extinguisher is quite simply beautiful cinema. And Wall-E does some truly heroic things, like saving the plant after Auto tries to shoot it into space, and, most importantly, protecting from Auto the machine that will return the Axiom to Earth. Wall-E nearly gets squished as a result. It breaks our hearts after he is fixed but does not recognize Eve. Eve’s kiss, however, which restores the Wall-E we know and love is as wonderful as it is predictable. During such a moment, you’d have to be a cold-hearted monster to not want to cry.

Awwwwwwww

So the instincts of the makers of Wall-E were on the money. It is great cinema. The only problem is that the film promotes propaganda that is anti-human, and dogmatically so, which makes it even worse.

Put bluntly, the treatment of humans as comically lazy, obese buffoons reveals a benign contempt for humanity. There are three elements to this. First, is the obesity. Yes, I have heard (and not bothered to research) that humans would lose bone mass and tend to gain weight after prolonged stays at zero-G. That’s supposedly the basis for the film’s decision to make everyone a fatty. But everyone? Do they mean to tell us that humans just lost all self-respect in space? Wouldn’t that be a sad thing if it were true? Well, no, because the filmmakers obviously think it’s funny.

The second element is the laziness. All the humans on the Axiom never leave their seats while they consume liquid food and watch television all day. Not one person doesn’t do this, you see. So basically, they are telling us that all humans are couch potatoes. Never mind all the athletes, soldiers, and hard-working people we have. No, no, couch potatoes. That’s what we are according to the makers of Wall-E. You know, I would get offended if someone ever accused me of being lazy. I get more offended when someone call all humans lazy and then have the temerity to laugh at them. That’s stereotyping, and stereotyping a whole group of people is supposed to be bad, right?

Finally, there’s the stupidity. The humans are pretty much oblivious to the heroic things that Wall-E and Eve have to do. They also don’t seem to care. Yes, there is the captain. But the captain is so clueless he has to do the most basic research to figure out what Wall-E is up to. For instance, he has to look up the definition of the word “dirt”. Well, of course! He’s fat, you see. And all fat people are stupid. Right? Sure! Like St. Thomas Aquinas.

"Do you think this haircut makes me look fat?"

Then there was the scene in which the captain, with much effort, gets on his feet to turn off Auto. They play Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra” just to show what a monumental feat this is. The joke is impossible to miss.

I’ll make the point again. If there is something about being in space for 700 years that would cause ALL human beings to become stupid, fat, and lazy, that would be unspeakably tragic. It would be the death of everything good. Everything we’ve ever accomplished and worked for would be for nothing. But the fact that the filmmakers try to make this condition funny tells us that this really isn’t happening they way things are happening with Wall-E and Eve. With the robots, you have a sweet love story that really happens plot point after plot point. With humans on the other hand all we have is a didactic stab at social commentary. The filmmakers are basically telling us that stupidity, laziness, and corpulence are bad things (as if we didn’t already know this).

"Drunk, fat, and stupid is no way to go through life, son."

So, before you think I’m taking all this too seriously, let’s perform a little thought experiment to determine whether or not my response is appropriate. Have you noticed that the humans on the Axiom were comprised of all the major races? That’s well and good, but suppose, on the other hand, there had been only one race of people on the Axiom. Like, say, Asian. Many Asian nations have viable space programs. It’s not out of the question that, when the planet becomes uninhabitable in the distant future, only spaceships from Asian nations would leave Earth successfully. So let’s suppose then that all the human characters in Wall-E are Asian but with their dialog and actions remaining completely unchanged. What would the response to such a film be? How would people react to a bunch of lazy, obese Asians bumbling around in ridiculous sweat suits? How would they react after realizing that the filmmakers wanted us to laugh at these people?

Their first question would be, what the hell do the makers of Wall-E have against Asians?

This would be a just question, and the accusations of racism which would follow would also be just. To imply that every single member of a certain race is stupid, fat, and lazy clearly reveals a low opinion of that race. Hence racism. In fact, there could be no other possible interpretation but racism. Right? Riiiiight?

So my logic follows thusly:

If having all Asians onboard the Axiom reveals anti-Asian racism, then having all humans onboard the Axiom reveals anti-human racism. The human race is a race, after all.

As they say in debate class: Q.E.D.

But before I start running my victory laps, I will add that the filmmakers could have avoided this blunder rather easily and still stayed true to their love story formula. The Earth could have been rendered uninhabitable after being struck by a meteor or attacked by an alien force or, heck, even a nuclear Armageddon if you insist on making the humans the culprits. In any of these scenarios, the stakes would have been high enough to give Wall-E and Eve’s struggles on the Axiom greater meaning. But no, the Earth was made uninhabitable not from an act of God or the evil actions of a few, but because hundreds of millions of earthlings couldn’t be bothered to clean up the mess they made. And did you notice the large corporation that had a hand in this? Buy N Large? A nice little dig at big time capital if there ever was one.

And the bottom line remains: the humans could have been more intelligent and self-respecting and still played a minimal role in the story. Why not? Is there a single reason why not?

Well, there isn’t a good reason why not, that’s for sure. There is a bad reason however: It gives a chance for physical fitness buffs and followers of trendy environmental causes to scold and deride people who aren’t physical fitness buffs or followers of trendy environmental causes. Strip aside the substantial beauty and vision of Wall-E, and this is what you have.

So if you are a physical fitness buff or a follower of trendy environmental causes and like ripping good love stories, then Wall-E is for you. If you’re not one of these people, then please, watch Wall-E anyway. Have your kids watch it too. Just let them know three things after it’s done:

1) That the majority of humans are not lazy, obese buffoons.
2) That there is a lot of scientific controversy about how much pollution is going on and we are nowhere near the state of degradation presented in the film.
3) And that human beings really aren’t that bad.

After all, we make wonderful films like Wall-E.