Saturday, July 12, 2008

WALL-E: A Mythology of Helplessness

I just saw the movie WALL-E the other night, and found it amusing and touching (and surprisingly communicative, despite the fact that the two main characters--WALL-E and EVE--are robots with a combined vocabulary of about half a dozen words).

So I find this article on the economic suppositions of the movie and how "anti-capitalist" and therefore unrealistic they are, to be interesting, but off the mark.

What this article misses is that WALL-E is a "what if" story, and not a "way things are" story (that should be obvious--it takes place 700 years in the future and the two main characters are robots). "What if" humanity trashed the earth, "what if" everyone became infantile whales prone to endless distraction, "what if" the only creatures capable of even imagining connection were quite literally work drones? The fact that we have, thus far, not piled garbage up in our backyards (rather, just out of sight in huge oceanic swirls), that we haven't become obese consumers (only our children), and that our computers aren't straining to make eye-contact (until Google gets its way) is irrelevant to the fantasy aspect of the film and does not invalidate WALL-E as a kind of daydream or thought-experiment about the nature of humanity, struggle, loneliness and gratitude. (The writer also seems to miss the film's explanation that the obesity of the humans in WALL-E is not due to over-consumption, but to the biological effects of living in space with false gravity for so long, and that "Axiom" is not meant to be a thriving civilization, but a temporary luxury resort cruise (and we all know how people on vacation like to indulge themselves, after all the work of living well can always wait a few more days...).

Obviously, WALL-E takes up plenty of well-documented trends from our current society and, for the sake of exploring an interesting science-fiction/fantasy world, exaggerates them, taking them to the extremes they might reach if they were left unchecked. Mr. Stolyarov might want to believe that humanity's natural need for diversity, uncertainty and challenge would function as a sufficient safeguard against such lazy, uninspiring homogeneity of lifestyle and thought... After all, he points out, no one can be satisfied forever with Big Macs, which is why McDonald's now offers salads for the health-conscious consumer (even though they're wrapped in about three layers of plastic and have more chemicals and calories than a burger--Stolyarov also misses the subtle tip-of-the-hat to this ingenious marketing technique when, in the movie, the fatty meal-replacement shakes are advertised as "health drinks").

I happen to agree with Stolyarov on this point, actually, with one significant difference. I know full well that people can often be fooled into believing they are "striving to improve their lives" when the choices they make actually do very little to accomplish such a goal. The vast variety of trend diets and quick-fix weight-loss pills that Stolyarov notes is a perfect example of the redirection of the natural human impulse towards self-improvement; indeed, almost all advertising and marketing campaigns play off of this desire for variety, choice and a chance to excel. Presented with a seemingly unending array of choices (even if they offer, as Chomsky calls it, only the illusion of choice), plenty of people might occupy themselves for years on end trying one pre-packaged solution after another, always trusting the ad campaigns that declare with confidence, for instance, that "blue is the new red." Certainly, there will be the fluke curiosity of a few individuals, those who might have accessed "Axiom's" large database about life back on Earth and wondered at its allure. But curiosity alone is not enough, when it can be so easily subverted and sublimated, distracted and eventually diminished to a mere eccentricity.

But aside from the mostly silly question of WALL-E's literal or economic realism, the film is really about raising questions about our current society--not its possible future--and raising those questions by exploring them through the heightened imagery and language of myth and metaphor. We may not all be hovering around on lounge chairs chattering mindlessly into instant-messenger screens instead of engaging with our fellow human beings, but social leisure activities have plummeted, and with it political and civic engagement, while cell-phone use has become the leading cause of car accidents and children would rather sit in front of a TV or computer screen than go outside and play. We don't need the literal and complete realization of the pleasantly futile dystopia human beings inhabit in WALL-E, in order to feel the effects of these trends in our everyday lives. Anyone who has the audacity not only to speak up for common sense environmental causes, but to experience honest awe or appreciation for the natural world will readily find themselves amusingly tolerated as an oddity among the children of the Baby Boomers, if not dismissed outright as a dirty-hippie-tree-hugger.

More importantly, WALL-E points out who might be the most immune to the allure of capitalism's endless illusion of choice. It is precisely the people (or, more often in this case, robots) who are deemed too unimportant or irrelevant to be targeted by constant marketing, who manage to slip under the radar and imagine a better world. Those who are too poor, too outdated or useless, those who are marginalized or quite literally forgotten, and those who do the dirty work of keeping the pristine facade of ease and luxury unmarred by messy reality. Time and again in the movie, we watch characters realize their isolation and helplessness (WALL-E collecting junk, the Captain of the "Axiom" locked away in his quarters, EVE replaying her security tapes), and yet by that very realization, they begin to assert their power--to imagine and to act for something better.

And perhaps, that is the message of WALL-E at its core: when we imagine ourselves in a position of power, controlling all the variables and protecting ourselves from disappointment, loneliness or hard work, we kill off the chance for real connection. The truth is, in the end, we can't make a living plant take root and grow, nor can we force someone to love us... All we can do is try to create the conditions that make life and love possible, and to appreciate our helplessness as the necessary precondition for that gift, when it comes.


  1. The innocent are much more capable of taking on what the rest of us consider hopeless, because it hasn't been hammered into them that caring is stupid, and that overcoming apathy is impossible.

    Hopefully, someone or something like Wall_E can slip salvation under our radar.

  2. Wall-E totally looks like the robot from "Short Circuit"... minus the cheesy 80's style of course

  3. Yeah, Wall-E does kinda look like Johnny 5!
    By the way, Ali, last night I saw in JPG magazine (photography mag, I think) a picture of river in Manila so completely full of trash, that I couldn't tell it was a river just by looking at it!
    Man, whoever wrote that Wall-E article was silly...

  4. I knew the design looked familiar! I just figured I'd been seeing posters for the movie too much... :)

    Yes, I think that article was rather silly. But then, I think the guy writing it is an Austrian economist. Economists are kind of like physicists, figuring out equations that make the world run--except of course that physicists studying natural (and apparently unchanging) laws like gravity, etc., while economists study the laws by which capitalist systems appear to function. They tend to forget that we invented the capitalist system and, unlike the natural laws of this universe, we can opt out or seek alternatives.

    Also, Austria's history of tension with the Soviet Union may color their view of capitalism versus communism (assumed, often, to be the only alternative economic system). Here in the West, where capitalism has flourished for several generations without any real threat or viable alternatives allowed to surface, we might have a better perspective of how even when it functions the way it's meant to, it fails to deliver on all the promises it makes.

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