The Little Trash-Compactor That Could
WALL-E's a winner
Even by Hollywood standards the story idea pitched to movie executives for Pixar’s WALL-E must have sounded hallucinogenic: “So we’ve got this robot, but it’s a really lonely robot, see, because all the humans have left Earth a complete wasteland and this poor little guy has to pick up their trash—forever! Yeah! He’ll be busy picking up their trash for like, 700 years, and he’ll only have one friend…um…a cockroach. And then let’s say he falls in love with another robot and ultimately makes the planet safe for all the humans again! Oh, oh, and people will leave the movie wanting to save the Earth.”
When word first spread about Pixar’s latest film, about a silent robot who saves the world, industry analysts were placing bets that this, finally, would be Pixar’s undoing. Sure, they had recently pulled off a movie about a rat that became a chef at a fine restaurant (Ratatouille), but this—a silent movie? A robot romance?—was just too much. The creative minds at Pixar have produced gems like Toy Story and The Incredibles that are flat-out excellent films—even Pixar’s relative dud, Cars, is Citizen Kane compared to most animated movies. But could they pull this off? After seeing WALL-E on its opening day, I can tell you the answer is yes, yes, yes. No movie has ever made me call all my friends immediately to insist they see it, and certainly no movie has ever compelled me to break state laws and call those friends on my cell phone while driving. I didn’t care. If a cop had pulled me over, I would have told him to see WALL-E too.
“But it’s a robot,” my friends told me. “I know,” I said, “but he’s not just a robot. He’s WALL-E!” After all, Bambi and The Lion King are about a deer and a lion we come to love, and it’s just about impossible not to fall in love with WALL-E.
Clearly indebted to Charlie Chaplin’s little tramp, WALL-E (an acronym for Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class) is a sweet and klutzy mess, endlessly curious about the creations humans have left behind on littered, lifeless Earth. Except for his one friend, a cockroach who survives on Twinkies, WALL-E is alone after all of his fellow robots have ceased functioning. It’s about as depressing a dystopia imaginable, yet we are given reason to hope.
Thanks to his mentor in all things love—a videotape of Hello Dolly that he salvaged out of the millions of tons of trash he’s compacted for centuries—WALL-E has become a heartfelt romantic. He watches the VHS tape over and over, playing the soundtrack as he works, and hoping against hope for the chance someday to hold someone’s hand just as Cornelius Hackl and Irene Molloy do in the 1969 movie.
He finds his chance in EVE, a curvier robot with a more feminine acronym who has been sent to find organic life on Earth. WALL-E is immediately smitten with EVE, but she doesn’t have time for anything but work. She eventually befriends her low-tech suitor, but when he gives her the plant he found growing amid the garbage as a gift, she is all business again, immediately returning to her ship. WALL-E does what any love struck, futuristic trash-compactor would do: he grabs the side of her spaceship and tags along.
It’s at this point, about 45 minutes into the movie, when we finally meet some human characters and encounter actual dialogue. In the future posed in WALL-E humans don’t walk anymore, mostly because we’re too fat and lazy. Instead, we get everywhere in moving, floating chairs, constantly eating, mindlessly chatting, endlessly consuming. Robots take care of everything, even running the massive spaceship in which all of us exist. This changes, of course, with the arrival of WALL-E, EVE and a simple plant potted in an old boot.
On one hand, this dystopian vision of people as blissful cattle is a common and powerful theme (most famously in the novel Brave New World), yet I couldn’t quite buy it: I might believe that humans would lose any intellectual curiosity or physical courage, but would they really lose the lust-for-power too? Even Brave New Word had a certain elect who rule over the unthinking masses, but maybe those people didn’t have the irresistible lure of lunch-in-a-cup as humans do in the 28th Century.
It’s a small quibble though, and the only real problem in an otherwise flawless film. I do mean flawless: the commitment to perfection is almost staggering, as visual jokes and allusions to previous science fiction films add to a physical beauty that repeatedly and literally left me breathless. You’ll have to see the film to learn how WALL-E and EVE save the world, but you should know beforehand that you won’t be required to join them: the movie’s environmental lesson is clear enough, but to call this a movie-with-a-moral cheapens a beautiful story and a truly great film.
WALL-E does everything I could ever ask literature to do: it made me laugh, it made me cry, it made me worry for the main characters and believe in their goals. I am wiser and more human for having seen it. Not too shabby for an apocalyptic robot romance.