The Axiom captain dreams of returning to Earth.

The Axiom captain finds hope in the lonely plant.

EVE and the captain watch EVE's recordings of Earth.

Passengers prepare for the return to Earth.

Passengers prepare for the return to Earth.

Axiom returns to earth.

The captain and passengers walk unsteadily from the Axiom toward home.

Passengers nearly stumble on their way to Earth.

EVE reawakens WALL-E by holding his hand.

Plant-life revealed in film's closing.

Ending credits show Earth renewed.

Ending credits show Earth renewed.

Ending credits show Earth renewed.

EVE and WALL-E nurture a garden on Earth.

WALL-E's plant roots into what looks like a Tree of Life.


Cultural artifacts and a first level of nostalgia:
WALL-E's shift from tragic to comic eco-hero

WALL-E first introduces nostalgia when he collects cultural artifacts from mountains of debris during his workday. WALL-E is a robot built for clean up, collecting and compacting garbage to build a new cityscape made of rubbish bricks. He is alone, a tragic hero with only a cockroach as a companion. The vacant Buy N Large shops, banks, and train line they pass demonstrate a loneliness reinforced by the motionless piles of robots like himself along the road, dead “WALL-Es.” WALL-E is the sole survivor in this vacant city, so he uses their parts for repairs on himself.

But the city also provides a setting for collective and individual nostalgia for a more natural environment. The people are gone, leaving a silent city where one robot attempts to clean up after centuries of waste after remaining humans escape to a space station with a cruise ship atmosphere. An electronic billboard commercial WALL-E passes explains,

“Too much garbage in your place? There is plenty of space out in space! BNL StarLiners leaving each day. We'll clean up the mess while you're away.”

As if illustrating the commercial message, the camera pans down to show city streets where garbage brick buildings fill caverns between skyscrapers. Garbage is everywhere in the empty streets. Only one figure moves in this desolate scene, the square robot with “WALL-E” inscribed on his chest, who makes garbage bricks to construct these buildings every day. Other nonworking robots and large pieces of machinery bear the name, but WALL-E, the last working robot, turns this arid setting into a memory book, a place where treasures are buried under trash piles and collected in a dilapidated cooler and displayed in a private museum which doubles as a home.

In these scenes, WALL-E seems to serve as a tragic hero, which Joseph Meeker defines in “The Comic Mode: The Biology of Comedy” as

“a creature of suffering and greatness… [with] enormous … capacity for creating and for enduring pain, for following a passion to its ultimate end, for employing the power of mind and spirit to rise above the contradictions of matter and circumstance, even though one is destroyed by them” (157).

As a tragic hero, WALL-E follows his directive each day, collecting and molding garbage into bricks while seeking to maintain the status quo, discovering artifacts to pay homage to Western culture.

Here he resembles Robert Neville (Charlton Heston) in Omega Man (1971) or the Neville character (Will Smith) in I Am Legend (2007), seeking to perpetuate his own cultural Mecca in a world gone savage. WALL-E first aligns with the Neville of I Am Legend, since he too has a sidekick pet — not a dog but a cockroach. Like the Neville of both films, however, WALL-E must barricade himself in his bunker each night, not to escape mutants but another product of nature — wind and dust storms. As a tragic hero, WALL-E is a pioneer, a “highly generalized, flexible, and adaptable creature[ ] capable of surviving despite the inhospitable nature of their environments” (Meeker 161). As Meeker asserts, “Pioneers must be aggressive, competitive, and tough” (161).

In these early scenes, WALL-E does seem to have survived because of a tough exterior. Following his directive, he recharges his solar power battery every morning and goes off to work, carrying his cooler on his rounds through the city, turning garbage into bricks and building taller and taller structures with each square. He stops only to collect more artifacts to add to his collections. The piles seem endless, but WALL-E is tireless, working in all conditions, stopping only to admire the treasures he collects, like the "spork" he sorts between his set of forks and spoons. And like Neville, WALL-E protects himself from blasts and dust storms in a secure bunker where he stores his collectibles by type and lights up the dark gloom with strings of bright holiday globes.

But this tragic hero seems to have internalized the messages of the artifacts he collects and evolved, in the process gaining characteristics of what Meeker calls a comic hero, who is “durable even though he may be weak, stupid, and undignified” (158). WALL-E has thus evolved from a machine to a more humanoid (and comic) android. Later, with his help, the other robots on the Axiom undergo the same transformation, and vacationing humans transform themselves from mindless consumers to eco-pioneers. Now, more a comic hero than a tragic one, WALL-E forms relationships with other robots and with humans that facilitate this renewal. According to Meeker,

“Comedy is a celebration, a ritual renewal of biological welfare as it persists in spite of any reasons there may be for feeling metaphysical despair” (159).

Instead of highlighting a tragic narrative, then, ultimately WALL-E shifts to a narrative that is embedded in the comic and communal, rather than tragic and individualized notions of species preservation found in the tragic evolutionary narrative of The Odyssey and of “early Darwinism” (Meeker, “The Comic Mode” 164). Those tragic evolutionary narratives support extermination and warfare rather than accommodation, the results on display in WALL-E’s opening shots.

According to Joseph Meeker, humans typically embrace a tragic evolutionary narrative, like that of The Odyssey. But, this position comes at a price and may cost humanity its existence. Meeker describes the problem:

“We demand that one species, our own, achieve unchallenged dominance where hundreds of species lived in complex equilibrium before our arrival” (164).

This attitude may not only lead to the destruction of other species but of humanity itself. Thus Meeker believes humanity has “a growing need to learn from the more stable comic heroes of nature, the animals” (164).

Humans have embraced a tragic evolutionary narrative in WALL-E that WALL-E the robot at first continues, following his directive. But ultimately the film changes direction, as do climax communities. The evolutionary narrative of WALL-E moves on to explore what might happen if humanity does learn from these more stable comic heroes, since, according to Meeker, “Evolution itself is a gigantic comic drama, not the bloody tragic spectacle imagined by the sentimental humanists of early Darwinism” (164). Meeker asserts:

"Nature is not 'red in tooth and claw' as the nineteenth-century English poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson characterized it, for evolution does not proceed through battles fought among animals to see who is fit enough to survive and who is not. Rather, the evolutionary process is one of adaptation and accommodation, with the various species exploring opportunistically their environments in search of a means to maintain their existence. Like comedy, evolution is a matter of muddling through." (164)

For Meeker, successful evolution encourages communal action to ensure survival:

"Its ground rules for participants (including man) are those which also govern literary comedy: organisms must adapt themselves to their circumstances in every possible way, must studiously avoid all-or-nothing choices, must prefer any alternative to death, must accept and encourage maximum diversity, must accommodate themselves to the accidental limitations of birth and environment, and must always prefer love to war — though if warfare is inevitable, it should be prosecuted so as to humble the enemy without destroying him." (166)

WALL-E embraces this focus on humans' “adapting themselves to their circumstances in every possible way” while adding the element of nature. The script's trajectory constructs a narrative of environmental adaptation that provides a space for nature and a broader vision of humanity that includes the humanoid robots that teaches them a better way. To build this narrative, the film follows a three-act narrative grounded in nature and versions of nostalgia that evolve from the solitary to the communal:

  • establishing Earth as an inhospitable setting for human and nonhuman nature.
  • leaving Earth on an evolutionary journey.
  • returning to Earth able to transform hell into a home.

Romantic nostalgia: adapting the inhospitable

WALL-E’s comic side emerges in his bunker when he turns on a VCR, and bits of Hello Dolly comes on the screen. Nostalgia for the working parts of Earth and the innocent Main Street of the musical Hello Dolly drive WALL-E, comic elements of community building because “comedy is the art of accommodation and reconciliation” (Meeker 168). Homages to Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and to Harold Lloyd reinforce this shift. WALL-E’s dance with a hubcap hat serves as an entry into a silent comic film plot with a romantic heroine at its center, no longer the figure in the video but EVE, a female love interest like those found in Buster Keaton plots, self-sufficient and strong, but ultimately desirable. WALL-E seems to embrace the indefatigable worker traits of Harold Lloyd characters and the romantic love for a seemingly unattainable woman of Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp films, all within the Buster Keaton storytelling model — a linear narrative in which WALL- E goes all the way out to the cruise ship and back to attain his girl, a strong female character like the love interest in The General (1927).

On one outing, however, WALL-E discovers a different kind of treasure inside a rusty refrigerator, a living growing plant that broaches another type of nostalgia, that for images of nature. This discovery shifts WALL-E from existing in a tragic individual mode to gaining a communal comic perspective in which he establishes interdependent relations with other robots, and human and nonhuman nature so that all species can survive (Meeker 168).

The introduction of EVE into Earth's desolate landscape provides a source for this interdependent relationship. EVE serves as a romantic female hero like those in Disney films and early silent comedies, but she also signifies a carefree freedom missing from the more tragic setup where WALL-E follows his directive so carefully. In one scene, for example, EVE flies above the waste with grace and speed. Accompanying music accentuates the sense of freedom her figure brings, and the dry landscape contrasts with her lively dance.

The entry of a trumpeted Louis Armstrong “La Vie en Rose” hints at WALL-E’s sudden feelings for EVE after viewing her dance. He follows her into a grocery store where he is rammed with shopping carts and the words, “When you kiss me,” come up in the song. WALL-E is fascinated. In the early scenes he shares with EVE on Earth, WALL-E seeks EVE’s attention as do Keaton, Chaplin, or Lloyd in all of their films, working to impress their female love interests. In Keaton’s films, as in WALL-E, the female protagonist always shares power and demonstrates her autonomy, just as EVE does from her early interactions with WALL-E until their return to Earth from the Axiom.

WALL-E attempts to impress EVE, just like Lloyd’s plucky “kid in the city” character in films like Safety Last (1923). Lloyd might send love letters and jewelry to a girl at home. WALL-E shows EVE his nostalgic artifacts, including the Hello Dolly video. They view the song and dance from the musical — “put on your Sunday clothes” — and WALL-E mimics the dance with his hubcap hat. EVE joins in the dance but is so strong she nearly destroys WALL-E and his home when she emulates him. WALL-E must even replace an eye with one of the extras he has stored. She is intrigued by the Zippo lighter and the “And that is love” line from “Only a Moment.” WALL-E wants to hold her hand and is so infatuated that the lighter reflects the love in his eyes as he reaches for her. Eve pulls away but sees the handholding in the movie and laughs as WALL-E searches for something else. It is the plant. He brings it out in the shoe, but when she sees it, she opens up her abdomen, places the plant inside, and shuts down, floating silently. WALL-E has awakened and inspired EVE just as Earth’s cultural artifacts had awakened him. Now EVE’s directive becomes the priority.

Eco-memory and nostalgia:
an evolutionary journey

When images of nature take precedence over romance, WALL-E is at first unprepared to accept the loss of love it might require. WALL-E is devastated and keeps calling EVE’s name after her own directive shuts her down. He attempts to revive her in the sun. He cares for her during a storm, putting umbrellas over her and protecting her from hail. He tries jumper cables and floats her around with him in a tire boat. He even sits with her on a bench to watch a sunset — like the iconic moment from Manhattan (1979). It is an absurd scene with all the garbage surrounding them. WALL-E plays pong with her, but she does not awaken. He goes off to work the next morning with his cooler, leaving EVE behind and builds his termite hill with no joy, lighting the Zippo as a reminder.

When EVE’s space probe returns, and its arm retrieves her, WALL-E races back and yells her name. He feels so connected with EVE, he cannot part with her and grabs onto the ship’s ladder as the ship takes off and plows through old satellites and debris into a quiet and clean space. WALL-E watches EVE through a porthole as he passes the moon where the lunar landing capsule and flag remain, along with a sign for an outlet mall. He even seems to touch the stars. Then a brightly lit and massive ship appears from behind cosmic clouds, and the probe enters the Axiom, the cruise ship on display in the ads.

It seems only robots inhabit this cruise ship until an obese human figure floats by on a chaise lounge. Others follow. They all stare into video screens and call for drinks and food. This cruise station looks similar to the Earth described in Silent Running, one large temperature-regulated mall. Now the paradise of the artificial world depicted in the ads on Earth becomes a nightmare.

In this cruise ship hell, WALL-E becomes the force of nostalgia, reminding humans and other robots of the value of human relations like those in Hello Dolly and ultimately of nonhuman nature. When a human falls out of his chair, WALL-E helps him back up and introduces himself, so the human — John — talks back, establishing a relation missing from the isolated video lives humans share. Humans have become such isolated consumers that when a robotic voice tells the humans that “blue is the new red,” all the humans change their costume colors in lock step. But again, WALL-E shatters the established order when he opens up a woman’s chair controls and turns off her video feed. He introduces himself, and she too talks back. Her name is Mary. Two humans now have interacted with WALL-E and changed their pattern of behavior.

WALL-E has already established a relationship with EVE and stays with her as she is ushered to the captain to share her plant discovery. After 700 years, EVE, Extraterrestrial Vegetative Extractor, has returned positive for plant life, and “Operation Re-Colonize” can begin. With life returning to the home planet, Axiom will navigate the people back to Earth, the manual explains. Video images of Forthright, the CEO from BNL, explain that there will be slight bone loss to contend with after a return to Earth’s gravity.

Autopilot, the captain’s robotic co-pilot, has a different plan and tells the captain, “We cannot go home.” After some coaxing from the captain, Auto shows another message from Forthright who reveals that Operation Cleanup has failed and toxicity levels are too high to sustain life on Earth. “It will be easier to remain in space,” the CEO states. “Do not return to Earth.” The plot is now revealed. The Earth, according to Forthright, is past saving and any contrary proof must be destroyed in order for the Axiom to remain in its present place. Autopilot is merely following his directive, to abandon any attempts to return to Earth.

Eco-memory and nostalgia:
culture and nature merge to make earth a home

The dirt WALL-E leaves in the captain’s hand helps ignite the captain’s urge to go home. He is intrigued by the dirt in his hand and asks the computer to analyze it. When the computer tells him it is soil — Earth, another form of nostalgia is established for the captain, nostalgia for images of nature. As the captain asks the computer to define Earth, images of green fields and blue skies come on the screen, just as they do in the opening of Soylent Green. Images from D.W. Griffith’s A Corner in Wheat (1909) show a lone farmer sowing seeds, while foregrounding the connection between humans and nature and the possibilities that remain after a corporation has taken control of agricultural industries. The collective eco-memories on display there become the captain’s individual nostalgic yearnings, all because WALL-E found a plant and brought soil to Axiom’s sterile world.

When EVE brings the captain the plant, the captain is thrilled that they can go home. He wants to see what Earth now looks like and turns on a recorded feed of her visit to Earth. It does not look like the computer images. “Where’s the blue sky? Where’s the grass” he asks, waxing nostalgically. The computer images, however, also ignite a spark in him to return the Earth to its earlier more natural state.

WALL-E’s tape of Hello Dolly cements the captain’s decision. He knows they must go back. He now realizes the film’s characters are dancing, so they must return to Earth and nurture it. Since the plant represents the Earth, he must nurture it as well. He waters the plant — you “just needed someone to look after you, that’s all. We have to go back!” Now he knows that Earth too needs someone to look after it. WALL-E has awakened the humans and androids from their passive existence, so they are drawn to one another and to the Earth they left behind.

Although Autopilot attempts to stop the captain, WALL-E, and EVE from returning to Earth, WALL-E fosters relations with malfunctioning misfit robots, EVE, the captain, and at least two humans and facilitates their return to Earth. Once the rest of the humans awake from their video-driven lives, they too form interdependent relationships and save one another from collisions. EVE uses a barrier to stop chairs from sliding into rows of humans along a wall. Mary and John save a group of children from crashing into the barrier. Autopilot pushes another button to close the process, and WALL-E holds up the mechanism in which they must place the plant. The captain must switch the Axiom to manual power, so he stands up and waddles over to Auto, turning him off after a struggle. Now the captain has control, navigating the ship manually. He turns the wheel back to its normal position and the Axiom is now level, so humans and androids are safe. The others stand up and pass the plant to EVE and the Operation Re-Colonize mechanism. It lifts up off WALL-E and a course is set for Earth. WALL-E is nearly crushed, but humans now care about one another and desire to go home.

The return to Earth marks the fruition of the evolutionary journey in WALL-E. Eve has connected so completely with WALL-E that, once back on Earth, she rushes him to his bunker to repair him, using the parts he had so carefully stored there. After she rebuilds and reenergizes him, he reverts back to a robotic existence, even crushing some of his artifacts to fulfill his directive. Yet even though he does not know EVE, she persists, even after the Hello Dolly music does not awaken WALL-E’s persona. When she follows him out to a garbage pile, touches his hand, and kisses him, however, WALL-E awakens and responds to her, saying her name. They hold hands just like the figures in Hello Dolly, emulating the nostalgic image on display.

The captain, on the other hand, leads the humans out of the ship to reclaim a different nostalgic memory, that of images of nature from his computer screen and in the plant he carries so carefully with him to Earth. With a crowd of children around him, the captain places the plant in soil — a first act of regeneration — and calls it farming. The camera pans out to reveal other vegetation as it crosses Earth and moves out to space. The film continues into the credits, highlighting the positive consequences of interdependent relations between human and nonhuman nature. The captain and multiple children and adults farm and fish, building an interconnected civilization, while EVE, WALL-E and the misfit robots build a family.

WALL-E and EVE’s family seems to serve as sustenance for the plant growing beneath them. Its roots deepen, still growing from the boot [EXPLAIN], and the plant becomes an enormous tree, showing the rejuvenation of nature and the growth of an effective relationship between humans and the natural world. Because of the nostalgia for human artifacts and culture, an eco-memory drives the captain of a cruise ship to return to Earth, leaving the artificial world of the Axiom behind. The rolling end credits reveal a new fertile world emerging from the garbage humans left behind, all made possible because a robot connected with humanity and revived humans' and robots' will to remember. It is a happy heterosexual ending. The new pioneers, both human and android, ally to attempt to recover the planet. In this new Eden made possible because of WALL-E and his EVE, even dust storms are eradicated and a nostalgic image of nature begins to thrive.

Go to Works cited and filmography

To topPrint versionJC 51 Jump Cut home

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.