The summer of 2008 saw the glorious and yet understated release of Pixar’s robot romance WALL-E. A post-apocalyptic film made for kids, it bypasses the usual terrors of the human downfall; violent conflict, global plagues, cosmic collisions? Hardly. The social message we find in Wall-E comes softly and sweetly in the form of a small, endearingly innocent robot still running on an outdated program to pick up trash long after earth’s human inhabitants have left (but have also left behind mountains of garbage). But beneath the gentleness lies a still-relevant critique on what makes us fundamentally human.
Several centuries in the future, the Earth has been ravaged by environmental disaster, leaving behind the remnants of the Buy n Large company (BnL), a massive company with inordinate influence on the world. The eponymous robot is the last denizen of Earth (along with his pet cockroach), and has picked up the habit of collecting trinkets from days gone by, becoming enamored with treasures like the 1969 musical, Hello, Dolly! on VHS, through which he learns about humanity.
One day, his life is disrupted by the arrival of EVE, a robot sent by BnL to look for signs of life on Earth. When EVE finds a plant among WALL-E’s collection, WALL-E stows away on the vessel that brings EVE back to the cruise ship Axiom. There, he finds the remaining members of the human race, shipped by BnL into space for a perpetual “cruise.” The passengers move about only in mobile lounge chairs, interacting via screens and drinking all their food for the sake of convenience.
If WALL-E—and its message on a crumbling environment and rampant consumerism—felt relevant in 2008, it’s almost too easy to say it feels even more so in 2020. It is also a film worth revisiting simply because it is one of Pixar’s best: a beautifully rendered romance played out entirely through nonverbal dialogue alongside a not-so-subtle but ever-important social critique accessible to the whole family.
This film is revolutionary in the sense that Pixar not only delivers complex subject matter in a kid’s film, but also manages to tell it in a nearly wordless way. With little dialogue, Pixar’s powers of visual storytelling are at full strength in this romance: whirs, beeps and meaningful looks propel the robots’ budding relationship. Even when human characters are introduced aboard the Axiom, dialogue is kept to a relative minimum for a feature-length film. The main voices we hear are those of the Captain (Jeff Garlin) and BnL CEO Shelby Forthright in archival footage (recently deceased comedy legend Fred Willard). While these speaking roles provide some context for the Axiom’s journey (and what’s happened to Earth), the story is still an overwhelming visual feast, moving forward through clever clues and details that allude to the destructive reality of human existence, such as the endless advertisements maintaining the veneer of consumerist utopia across the Axiom.
A major part of the success of WALL-E lies in the development and emotification of robot characters. More than any human characters in the film, WALL-E and EVE—machines without many human features that are nevertheless cleverly personified and identifiable to the audience—develop a believable relationship and even blossoming romance: no small feat. Their character designs are inspired from the history of sci-fi (the intimidating Auto is reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s HAL 9000) while also being unique. The personalities of these robots are also cleverly linked to their jobs, giving them charming quirks like WALL-E’s trash collecting protocol giving way to trinket collecting.
There is an argument to be made that WALL-E is too blunt in its critique, even for a children’s film. Its messages of environmentalism and mass consumerism are, like those in many sci-fi films, a little on the nose. While there are nuances and complexities to these themes through the film’s packing of every frame with visual detail, there is also a fair amount of heavy-handed pleading with the audience, even if for a good cause; those averse to heavy-handed storytelling may want to proceed with caution and curtail expectations about subtlety.
Pixar has usually been better than other animation studios at navigating the vast age range represented by the broad target audience of family-oriented animation. So while there is nothing quite on the level of the Minions’ antics here, some jokes (say, WALL-E finding a bra among the rubble and placing it over his eyes) may strike audiences as being a little juvenile or broad—but, hey, that’s silent comedy. The reliance on the visual aspects and the nostalgic references in the film’s silent-film proclivities, too, might not captivate some viewers in the same way it has captivated critics for twelve years. It might be particularly out of reach for children of today, who perhaps have more in common with the screens aboard Axiom than with planet Earth.
At surface level, WALL-E is an urgent reminder to protect the planet because we might lose it otherwise. This is the clearest and most central theme of the film’s initial setup, as WALL-E traverses a dusty and dull Earth, long-abandoned by the people who have made it unlivable. But something else is long-abandoned—something even more intrinsic to mankind: humanity.
The control that the BnL company holds over human life in the film is never directly blamed for the destruction of the Earth or the systematic control of its people. Sure, they take the blame for stranding humanity’s remnants in space after it’s revealed that Earth is too dangerous to return to, but nobody ever directly points the finger at them for much else. On the other hand, the film is careful to leave clues gesturing towards a critique of rampant capitalism as the way the world ends, indirectly pointing at BnL as the perpetrator. Given that Disney had, only two years before, bought Pixar, perhaps such circuitous treatment of the sheer power held by a monopolistic corporation was partially by design (and yes, you can watch WALL-E on Disney+).
The ruination of Earth can only be glimpsed at an angle, as the desolate wastelands filled with now-useless “stuff” are only dotted with reminders of BnL’s omnipresence by the time the viewer arrives on the scene. While WALL-E finds solace in individual objects, their entirety makes up a landscape of mass-produced garbage; the film opens with a striking shot of a silhouetted city skyline that turns out to be garbage stacked up like skyscrapers. The result of capitalist consumption is only waste—mountains full of it. WALL-E does a fantastic job of putting mass consumerism and mass production into scale, doing what individual objects alone never could.
The system that led to a wasted Earth too dirty to clean up or salvage also has an alternative reality: an orbiting consumerist existence of humans aboard the Axiom that is more virtual than real. While we may not live in their ostensible utopia of perfect weather and no obligations, the sedentary lifestyles and passive tendencies we see in the film are all too familiar in a country of surplus like the U.S. It may be tempting to read this part of the film as a call for humans to change their behavior to keep them from becoming the lazy, overweight sheep who are oblivious to everything (“I didn’t know we had a pool!” exclaims a woman WALL-E disconnects from her video call), but the mental disconnect seems to have happened long before the cruise began.
The system under which these people are living is a numbing anesthetic to any real consequences of the human condition. No critical thinking needed here, no competition, no labor under the sun. Under the aggressive monopoly of BnL, lazing around all day attached to screens has become the only way to live. When an announcement encourages passengers to “Try blue, it’s the new red!” every passenger in sight presses a button on their screens, instantly changing the colors of their identical outfits. Choices are presented, but there are no decisions to be made, and complacency too often parallels a society of comfort and convenience.
Meanwhile, in real life, many companies owned by a handful of corporate entities try to control the narrative of how much they mean to us during a pandemic, and the environmental dystopia of WALL-E is not far off (probably without the cute robot romance, to make matters worse).
While 2020 continues to unveil crises—havoc wreaked by the pandemic and the rising problematics of race, politics, authority and social unrest in the United States and the world at large—there’s one thing we know won’t happen: an obese human existence on board an intergalactic “cruise.” But at least it seems we’ve woken up to the reality that all is not well, and perhaps can be humbled to see the errors not just in the outward symptoms, but also in the lack in human beings ourselves that corrupts society and destroys our shared resources.
When the credits roll, it seems like the people of Earth are going back to the way things were before by beginning to farm again. But the return to simplicity also seems like an organic return to something more fundamentally human. And today, as we are barreling towards the new normal on Earth that everyone is promising, perhaps we should also search for the simple, shared and fundamentally human existence that WALL-E gives hope for.