Tuesday 22 July 2008

Trashing the future of humanity

WALL·E (2008), directed by Andrew Stanton

I remember the futuristic fantasies that inspired me as a young child in the 1970s:  trips to the moon, food for all, more leisure-time, and an end to poverty. I’ve often wondered what visions might inspire young people today, and I got a taster with the new Pixar/Disney production WALL-E.

The film begins with the camera spanning galaxies as they sparkle and twinkle, accompanied by an eerie soundtrack about leaving Yonkers (a place bordering New York City)(1). We make our way through the swirls of colour towards Earth, and descend to see skyscrapers of brick and glass intermingled with towers of trash. Set 700 years in the future, WALL-E (Waste Allocator Load Lifter Earth-Class) is one of the many robots left on Earth to clear up human debris. Trash is a central theme in the film, and much more than a mere plot device.

As images of waste dominate the cityscapes, giant screens and advertising boards blazon ‘BUY N LARGE’, the name of the corporate organisation that dominated this dystopia. We become familiar with WALL-E: camera eyes and tracks are attached to his mechanical square-like body, and he scoops up trash into his bodily frame, compresses it into chunks and stacks it into ever-increasing mountainous blocks.

There are glimpses of the problems that got Earth to this point. Screens flash chaotically, one repeating a 700-year-old announcement from Shelby Forthright (Fred Willard), the CEO of ‘Buy N Large’. Forthright’s desperate message is chilling as it explains the plan to evacuate to space and leave the WALL-E robots behind to clean up the human mess. It is humans who have upset the eco-balance. Another commercial has been replaying for centuries with a message about the space voyager for the trip, Axiom. It shows beautifully svelte people enjoying the luxuries of life on board: hovering recliner boards, all the BnL products you could wish for and their every need taken care of by robots.

WALL-E continues his work, his repetitive pattern, until one day an aircraft lands and deposits an explorer robot EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Examiner), pronounced incorrectly ‘Eva’ by WALL-E. EVE wanders around the barren land recording information about the Earth’s surface and searching for organic life. (It is clearly no accident that EVE has the same name as the woman in the Christian Creation story.) After some very sweet attempts by WALL-E to secure EVE’s interest, they become friends.

WALL-E is pronounced ‘Wally’ by EVE, and the Eva-Wally ‘conversation’ is amusing: the repetition of these names constitutes much of the dialogue. When EVE no longer perceives WALL-E as a threat, she is taken to his cabin to be protected from the stuff that engulfs the surface at night. Here EVE finds an organic plant that WALL-E had discovered earlier, thus fulfilling her directive.

The discovery puts EVE into a hibernating mode and she is collected by the ship that deposited her. WALL-E follows, and we see the remnants of human society, which are only incidental in this story: the robots are the heroes here. WALL-E follows EVE to the Axiom. It is here we see the first signs of human life. Morbidly obese people float on their automated hoverbeds and communicate to their peers via screens (despite their peers being within face-to-face distance). I could not help but think these images reflected fears about technologies such as email and Facebook. The ship’s captain (voice by Jeff Garlin) is the only human with any character, yet he is still portrayed as a wobbly-bodied, light-headed bumbling buffoon. This film has one of the worst visions of humanity ever seen in a futuristic fantasy tale from Walt Disney’s studios. The humans are pretty useless during the whole furore that emerges. They struggle to stand up since their bodies are so fat. Developments in the story are activated by WALL-E as he makes the other machines and people start to think and behave differently. In this futuristic world, robots run the whole ship. There is a wonderfully funny scene showing defunct robots taken to a unit reminiscent of a mental health ward, where WALL-E accidentally frees the rogue robots and then chaos and drama ensues.

Throughout the film we are constantly reminded of the trash narrative, and even on board the Axiom we see large chunks of trash ejected into space. In essence, waste is synonymous with the human race.

As a film, WALL-E is a sweet and enjoyable love-story with many amusing moments, but as a comment on human life it shows people as disgusting. That pretty much sums up the misanthropic vision of humanity today. Director Andrew Stanton had this to say about his portrayal of people:

With the human characters I wanted to show that our programming is the routines and habits that distract us to the point that we’re not really making connections to the people next to us. We’re not engaging in relationships, which are the point of living- relationships with God and relationship with
other people.(2)

Yet despite his attempt to be critical of human uses of technology he ends up by celebrating it but in a machine form: the robots in this film are the best example of the complete mechanisation of communication.

I’m in my 30s now, and may not have gone to the moon on holiday but at least grew up believing it was possible to bring about positive change. What will young people think about their place in the future? How will these images shape their visions of what they are capable of? And what about the belief in the human capacity to change the world? Films like these do have an impact, and a friend’s eight year old daughter said of the future:

I think the future will be depressing because global warming will make it very hot, the polar bears will be dead, the Arctic will be gone and the sea levels will rise so there will be floods. I can’t think of anything nice that will happen, although it might be exciting to have robots that can do everything for you.

To take heart, I also thought we’d be blown up in nuclear annihilation, but at least I had the utopian visions to counter it, which unfortunately children do not have today. I now think many of these 1970s visions were fantastic ‘rubbish’ of another kind, but I still believe in people, and if nothing else am left with that. WALL-E offers little hope for the future of humanity, but it offers plenty for machines.


(1) Put On Your Sunday Clothes, performed by Michael Crawford
(2) Megan Basham, WALL•E world


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