Wall-E: More Than Just The Environment – How Robots Teach Us How To Be Human

Posted on July 11, 2008


My wife walks in to my office yesterday and demands that I blog about Wall-E. So here it is :-).

If you haven’t heard of the new Pixar movie, there seems to be quite the buzz around the “meaning” of the movie; i.e., What was Pixar’s message through the film? Arguably, this is one of Pixar’s most thought provoking films, risky in content and premise, and ambiguous in point; nonetheless, successful. Currently number 2 grossing $32.5M. Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 97% fresh (as of July 9, 2008).

Andrew Stanton

NPR’s Fresh Air interview with Andrew Stanton is excellent. Christianity Today’s article, “The Little Robot That Could” is of interest, but maybe a bit too, well, “christian” for some in their interpretation and attempted Biblical parallels of the movie (Wall-E being Adam, and EVE being, well, Eve; the Axiom space ship being Noah’s ark). Regardless, Stanton gives his personal interpretation of the film saying,

The theme that I was trying to tap into was that irrational love defeats life’s programming—that it takes a random act of loving kindness to kick us out of our routines and habit.

And about the fat lazy humans?

I wasn’t trying to make the humans into fat, lazy consumers, but to make humanity appear to be completely consumed by everything that can distract you—to the point where they lost connection with each other, even though they’re right next to each other. The reason I made them look like big babies was because a NASA guy told me that they haven’t yet simulated gravity perfectly for long-term residency in space. And if they don’t get it just right, atrophy kicks in and you begin to lose your muscle tone—you just turn into a blob of goo. For a while, that’s what I did with the humans in the movie; they were just big blobs of Jell-O. But it was so bizarre, we had to pull it back. So I said, well, let’s just make them look like big babies. That’s where all that came from.

I wasn’t trying to make some sort of mean-spirited comment on consumerism or today’s society. I was going with just the logic of what would happen if you were in a perpetual vacation with no real purpose in life. So I went with the idea that we’d become sort of big babies with no reason to grow up. I definitely saw humanity as victims of this system that they were in. They were just big babies that needed to stand on their own two feet.

The last thing I’m going to do is try to make a message movie!

Controversially, a MSNBC interview with Dan Abrams reports how many are suggesting that Wall-E is simply a propaganda piece for right-wing environmentalists. The video appears to not be available at MSNBC.com anymore, but HotAir.com has it posted. Similar left-wing sentiments about the evils of mankind are found in the National Review article, WALL-E, No Thanks.

While I think the question is somewhat ridiculous, I will admit that I walked away with a first impression of feeling environmentally heightened. But, while many may see that as the main message one would walk away with, my wife muses otherwise. What follows are primarily her thoughts in my summation and articulation. They are here, not just because she asked me to blog about it ;-). I believe she’s on to something profound, and worth pondering and practicing.

IT’S NOT JUST ABOUT ENVIRONMENTALISM, IT’S ABOUT RELATIONSHIPS AND RELATING, and how that greatly affect everything around us.

The irony of the movie is that robots, the mechanical and inanimate entities (and even more ironically created/invented by humans) are actually the ones who develop intimacy, relationship, touch, feeling, compassion, empathy. And people, who are supposed to have these traits and characteristics, have been lost in technology and consumerism. The plight of humanity and of planet earth is due, not because people stopped caring about the environment, but because people stopped caring about relationships. Humanity, desiring to make life more convenient, actually made life less about living. And when Wall-E shows up, the one character that desires to be connected, at the level of, oh, shall we say, “the soul,” everything begins to change and improve.

You see this all throughout the film. The movie, “Hello Dolly” is a movie about relating where Wall-E learns how to “hold hands.” Wall-E first relates to the cockroach, a most undesirable creature to relate to. Yet, there is a sense of care. As Wall-E meets EVE, he “relates” to her, not as a robot, but as a fellow soul (and apparently, a very attractive one). EVE is then moved from her sense of “directive” to a sense of relationship herself with Wall-E. As Wall-E enters the Axiom (which I thought may have been a subtle allusion to the Arkansas company Acxiom, a global interactive marketing services agency [1]) even the robots there are somehow transformed by Wall-E’s “waving,” and “conversing,” and “apologetic acts.” And when Wall-E “bumps” into various people or things, you see relationships happen. The “relationship” between the Captain and Otto (“Auto?”) seems to reinforce the enslavement to technology and it is only after the Captain begins to actually relate to the things and people around him that Otto tries to suppress his relational urgings. It’s almost as if the technology has become a “soul/mind” of its own.

Finally, the earth is saved when the Captain realizes that they must return home, because there is life available, which will require some hard work, but it will ultimately be worth it because they have rediscovered really what living is about. Perhaps it is relating to each other? Perhaps it is refusing technological comforts and consumerism as that diminishes our humanity, and makes everything around us suffer. Perhaps. Either way, it’s a lesson of higher value than mere existence, to see and relate to everything around us in, as one author has put it, an “I-Thou” relationship.

I feel that much of this is along the same lines as my post on GodBlogCon, and raises similar issues.

I close with a direct quote from my wife. And if you haven’t guessed it already, there in lies also the reason I have included her so much in this post.

If we don’t see how we relate, even to our garbage, affects the world around us, we miss a big part of being human, and it is through relationship, though interpersonal interaction that the world is saved again.

[1] For a fascinating documentary on the “persuasion industry” see Frontline’s The Persuaders. (free online)