On the anniversary of its release in the Philippines, we look into the brilliance of one of Pixar’s best films.
At its very heart, WALL-E is a love story.
Set in the year 2805, the world of WALL-E is shown to be a wasteland with not a human soul in sight, mountains of garbage covering the landscape. Moving through this desolation is a little trash compactor unit, our eponymous protagonist, guilelessly following his waste reduction directive while collecting little knick-knacks of humanity’s past and practicing the choreography for Hey, Dolly! That changes when he meets a probe named EVE, sent from space to scan for and retrieve plant life. What transpires is a story of love so powerful that it crosses galaxies, sparks sentience in robot brains, and restarts civilization.
Those energies weren’t immediately obvious to those of us who first saw WALL-E 10 years ago, when we were kids or teenagers, partly because there is so much to admire about WALL-E that it doesn’t come to us all at once upon first view. The way so much is said between two characters who barely speak. How human these little robots were, more human than the actual people in the film. Who among us hasn’t felt the way WALL-E did upon encountering a first great love, as if they had fallen straight out of the sky? And who among us hasn’t felt that requited love was like dancing in zero gravity, among stars, propelled by a fire extinguisher?
But partly what makes WALL-E and EVE’s love story so powerful is that it is set in a dark vision of the future, and how it shines in response.
When WALL-E was first released in the Philippines on August 13, 2008, it was easy to read the film as a critique of mindless consumerism and lazy lifestyle choices as the ultimate culprits of a dead world future. Environmentalism discourse was different back then in that it burdened the individual, and strains of that thinking still persist, as if to say: if humanity dies, it’s because you didn’t get on the metal straw bandwagon.
Now the world is different, but very much the same, an intensification of the problems we faced a decade ago. The effects of climate change are predicted to be irreversible, and an invigoration of leftist thought casts a harsher light on the way corporations rules the earth. Both are indications of humanity’s precarious position in the anthropocene. And yes, blind consumerism is still a blight, but it’s irresponsible production and profit-making that are being held responsible for ushering in the apocalypse. And maybe we could live in a post-scarcity spaceship like the Axiom, or even dream of terraforming new planets, but what about making this planet, which has always been our home, more habitable?
Those who hold more conservative, neoliberal stances might like to think that the market is smart, that it will correct itself, that if big businesses channel their resources into more ethical plans, ecological destruction could be reverse. But in the beginning of the film, even though we’re told that Buy N’ Large will play a part in cleaning up the earth with little trash compactors, we only see our WALL-E wheeling about, in a landscape strewn with literal skyscrapers of litter and broken WALL-E units, 700 years after they’ve been deployed.
There’s also the issue of historical revisionism — a manipulative autopilot AI called Auto obeys the directive of Buy N’ Large’s CEO to keep humanity in space forever, effectively cancelling a future in which people do more than just lounge about. So much time has passed that the pilot of the Axiom, Captain McCrea, has to relearn the definitions for “sea” and “sky.” When we lock away the truth of the past, we fail to correlate our actions with our consequences, and horizons of possibility are closed off before us. We end up living lazy and complacent, with tiny bones in blob bodies, staring at screens of light to pass the time. And I know it sounds doomsday-hyperbolic, but there’ve been days where I’ve stared at my phone for so damn long that when I looked up I was surprised to see my surroundings, crumbling and decrepit, lit by the actual sun.
And how does WALL-E engage these dystopic tensions? With a little robot who just wants to hold his crush’s hand the way he saw it done in his favorite musical. And every effort he makes to bridge that galaxy-wide distance sets off a chain of powerful events: a robot uprising, Auto’s plans unraveling, a fat captain standing up from his chair after years of immobility. Here is what WALL-E has to say about love: that it is powerful enough to reverse dystopia itself.
10 years after WALL-E’s release, we find our world closely resembling the film’s dark future more than ever before. In many ways, we are like the captain of Axiom before his awakening, not entirely aware of what we’ve done to get here, or what we can do to make things better. But next to our two lovable leads, he’s also the best character in the film, moved into action when he realizes that as long as there are signs of life, there is hope. That might be hard for us to imagine — an exhausting news cycle has consigned us to dead-eyed anxiety, dwelling in a desolate earth, unable to imagine a blue-skyed future.
But perhaps love, like an electric kiss, might help us come to our senses.