But Wall-E’s broad appeal makes an analysis tricky. It’s easy to see the film as simply “a kid’s movie” and to dismiss any merits its narrative may contain. It’s also easy to view it as just an “issues movie”, a pointed critique of the obesity epidemic or of consumerist culture. Such a superficial examination reduces the movie to bite-size messages: Don’t trash the world. Technology is bad. People are lazy.
If that was a fair assessment of Wall-E, there would be no point in exploring it. I am not interested in narratives with such shallow roots that they can be summarized into tidy little statements; these types of parables preach to the choir and are dismissed by others. I believe Wall-E is deeper and deserves better. In this entry, I’ll explain how for me, Wall-E is also about fulfilling one’s potential and of finding the middle ground in all things.
Work and Play: Finding the Balance of the Good Life
When we are first introduced to Wall-E, he has been going about his routine of compressing and stacking trash day after day for over seven centuries. He is the last of his kind; all the other robots of his make have broken down, having worked themselves into oblivion. These other units knew nothing but work, did not change, did not grow, did not adapt. As a result, they wore themselves out and became scrap.
At the other extreme, the humans aboard the Axiom in the second half of the movie knew nothing but leisure. With their every whim catered to, they became blissfully ignorant of the greater world around them. Like the generic Wall-E’s, there is a gross imbalance in their lives. All work and all play resulted in neither being challenged in their everyday existence; neither group realized their full potential.
Wall-E stands as a stark contrast to both his counterparts and the humans. Unlike his fellow trash compactors, Wall-E grew curious, creative, and resourceful over the centuries. These traits enabled him to not only survive by adapting and cannibalizing parts from other units, but also to thrive in his own way in a bleak world. His job provides him with some meaning and purpose, but while he finds tremendous satisfaction in it, he is not only his work. Growing beyond his programming and his routines, he has also cultivated a sort of home life, forging sentimental attachments to his collected treasures and to an indestructible cockroach companion. His job has not eroded his ability for wonder, and the balance he achieves between the two spheres of his life has presumably kept him operational (and relatively sane) over the centuries.
To me, the film seems to suggest that the good life lies in finding the middle ground between meaningful work and stimulating play. Even before being whisked away by Eve on an adventure, Wall-E seemed to have figured things out. By the end of the movie, helps others discover that balance for themselves.
- Where do you stand on the work/play spectrum? Are you comfortable with that balance in your life?
On Human Potential
I found the depiction of Wall-E’s human characters fascinating. Far from an indictment of humanity’s frailty and laziness, Wall-E portrays the people aboard the Axiom in an inherently optimistic fashion. Even after centuries of what is essentially domestication, humans are shown to simply need a nudge in order to embark on a journey of self-actualization and personal growth. When Wall-E’s escapades aboard the Axiom introduce chaos and unpredictability into John and Mary’s lives, they awaken quickly to discover the beauty of their world and each other’s companionship. The captain is understandably wary and initially fearful of the news that Eve has discovered life on Earth, but his curiosity drives him to explore, learn, and grow in knowledge and character. Once there was awareness of something new and challenging, the status quo was no longer sufficient for him. During the final confrontation with Auto, the captain displays ingenuity, creativity, and courage to trick and oppose the AI in hopes of a new future, exclaiming that he doesn’t simply want to survive, but also wants to live.
I find the film’s portrayal of humanity to be a tremendously hopeful one. Each life we are born anew along with the possibility for change. Given the opportunity, we all have within us the irrepressible ability to grow and fulfill our potential.
Technologies of Oppression and Liberation
Of course, one of the major themes of Wall-E revolves around the use of technology. What is refreshing about the film is that it recognizes that technology itself is not inherently evil or oppressive. Even Auto, the chief antagonist, is not a typical evil villain; it was simply attempting to accomplish the objectives left behind by its creators.
The problem aboard the Axiom is one of overreliance. Over the centuries, humans came to rely on the ship’s technology for every facet of their lives; this multi-generational dependence was built into the very fabric of society. Unfortunately, this dependency hindered their ability to fulfill their own potential; it kept them placid and oblivious to the world around them. It was literally all they knew until Wall-E jolted them out of their routines. The movie seems to hint at the dangers of allowing anything to rob one of the opportunity to discover new challenges and seek out ways to grow, whether that be an overly protective nanny state or succumbing wholly to the lures of technology (both of which are portrayed in the film). I see this call for moderation in all things as an idea that can resonate with people from both the left and the right.
Then there is the conclusion:
The sequence is far from a simple credit scroll; it actually rounds out the movie with a stunning series of illustrations of different artstyles that depict humans slowly rebuilding civilization on earth. As the scenes unfold, we see human beings relearning how to live in balance with the world. But Wall-E does not reject the advantages of life afforded by the technologies of the Axiom, nor does it espouse the virtues of a pre-technological subsistence lifestyle. (Unlike some popular science fiction stories). Instead, each scene has humans working side by side with robots, starting fires, drilling for water, planting crops, hauling fish, and constructing buildings.
The ending of Wall-E emphasizes integration rather than exclusion; it seeks to find the middle ground, a third path, instead of choosing between nature or technology. The people of Wall-E seemed to have learned from the mistakes of the past to not mindlessly exploit and pollute their environment. At the same time, the end scenes show people utilizing technology in thoughtful ways to make life easier and more productive. With robots play a pivotal role in the work of rebuilding civilization, humanity’s relationship with technology transforms from one of benign oppression aboard the Axiom to a balanced partnership. Through this depiction, Wall-E provides a balanced vision of hope for our own future interaction with technology.
Finally, I see Wall-E as a story of how an outsider, removed from convention and tradition, can disrupt and challenge the status quo and bring about needed change on a personal and societal level. An everyman who finds himself in way over his head, Wall-E simply acts out of love, doing what he can. He did not seek out to enact change, but his actions and sacrifices move and inspire others around him to act and grow in ways that ultimately make themselves better. It is yet another powerful form of invisible leadership I wrote of in a previous post.
Potential and growth. Balance and integration. Love and inspiration. These are some of the ideas I took away from Wall-E. A kid’s movie? A green flick? Perhaps, but it is not only those things. For me, it is also a nuanced, meaningful, and boundlessly optimistic Ekostory.
Next Up: A journey outward and inward.
Images from Wall-E © 2008 Disney Pixar. All rights reserved.