Earth from space opens WALL-E.

Termite skyscrapers.

WALL-E at work.

WALL-E at work.

Remains of Buy-N-Large Gas Station.

Remains of Buy-N-Large Big Box Store.

Remaining newspaper message of doom.

Axiom on hologram billboard.

Promise of paradise on the Axiom.

WALL-E watches Hello Dolly.

WALL-E dances to Hello Dolly.

Axiom passengers personally connect after meeting WALL-E.

WALL-E preserves the refrigerator plant.

The Axiom captain views images of Earth.

WALL-E and EVE dance in space.

WALL-E and EVE hug.

from environmental adaptation to sentimental nostalgia

by Robin L. Murray and Joseph K. Heumann

WALL-E (2008) opens deep in outer space, and as the camera draws closer to Earth, the music and lyrics from one of Hello Dolly’s love songs, “Put on Your Sunday Clothes,” accompany and highlight the cosmos, galaxies, and stars. “Somewhere Out There” amplifies our view of Earth from space. But as we get closer to the landmasses and oceans of Earth, they are obscured by brown and gray floating masses of space garbage that become clearer as the shot moves toward a cityscape piled with skyscrapers built from trash. They look like enormous termite hills between vacant buildings in an empty city devoid of sound except for the roaring wind and a rolling object playing “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” as it picks up and compacts garbage.

These contrasting visions of Earth introduce the two conflicting ideologies that ground the film’s rhetoric, those of Disney and Pixar Studios. Although produced and released by Disney, WALL-E reflects the postmodern viewpoint of Pixar Animation studios, the creators of the film, transforming the film and its protagonist, WALL-E into what Paul Wells calls an “American popular cultural artifact [sic]” that has “become the focus of a significant meta-commentary on American consumer values and social identity” (152). By critiquing consumerism so overtly, WALL-E also critiques Disney aesthetic and production values throughout much of the film. However, the film also reinforces a conservative romantic ideology found in classic Disney features from Snow White forward.

The philosophies driving both Pixar and Disney, then, impact the ideology represented in WALL-E. Until the film’s end, Pixar’s vision resonates in the film and provides a dystopic and mechanistic perspective in which a robot named WALL-E acts as a comic hero who empowers an apathetic, indolent, and lethargic human race on a centuries-long, luxury, solar-system, “cruise ship” vacation. WALL-E helps transform the hell of Earth into a home by following a narrative of environmental adaptation with a clear and cohesive structure that follows an evolutionary pattern focused on place.

This dystopic view is made possible because the Pixar philosophy allows a director’s vision to take precedence over studio ideology. According to “The Pixar Philosophy,”

"The fundamental difference at Pixar, unlike other environments with this melting-pot of collaboration, is that the director is always the final word here no matter where the notes come from, whether they’re from the studio, anybody. The director ultimately pays attention to all of that and then he or she makes the decision and moves forward with it, so it still remains a singular vision even though you have all of these wonderful high-level collaborators."

The director has final decision-making power, and story drives the computer animation, according to Karen Paik’s To Infinity and Beyond! The Story of Pixar Animation Studios, helping Pixar maintain aesthetic and narrative integrity. Andrew Stanton, co-director of A Bug’s Life (1998) and director of both Finding Nemo (2003) and WALL-E (2008) explains the benefits of this stance in an interview with Paik:

"Every time I look at Toy Story… I see how strongly it shows the stamp of John’s [Lassiter's] personality, but there are also these moments where I go, that’s Lee, that’s Pete, that’s Joe, that’s me. I knew Pixar was this thing that came together with all of us. The great chemistry was that we knew how to be a group that forwarded John’s vision…. In my mind, Nemo’s very cohesive with the other films because it was born from the same group. But it’s a real big billboard of, 'This is what you get when I drive.'" (Paik 225)

Stanton’s vision shines through in WALL-E as well. In both Finding Nemo and WALL-E, as well as in A Bug’s Life (1998), nature and the environment take center stage: A Bug’s Life explores an ant’s attempts to save his colony from human-like grasshoppers; Finding Nemo looks at human intervention from under the sea, while WALL-E examines it on both Earth’s surface and onboard its floating cruise ship. The values presented here support Pixar’s emphasis on letting the director “drive.”

Other values WALL-E illustrates, like “romantic devotion and monogamy” and “hard work, faithfulness to duty” or denigrating “passive dependency” (Allen, “Wall-E doesn’t say anything”), seem drawn from a Disney scorecard and appeal to both liberal and conservative audiences. Neal Gabler sees Disney animation providing a space in which Disney (in early films) and his viewers “would ultimately find nurturance, love, independence, and authority” (217). From a conservative perspective, “Movieguide,” a “ministry dedicated to redeeming the values of the mass media according to biblical principles” calls WALL-E “exemplary.” According to the Movieguide review, WALL-E reflects a

“strong Christian worldview without mentioning Jesus that tells a story about no greater love has any person than to give up his or her life for his or her neighbor.”

From the liberal side, The New Yorker’s David Denby calls WALL-E a “classic” that “demonstrates not just the number but the variety of ideas you need to make a terrific movie.”

Thus, in spite of the conflicting politics behind these reviews, WALL-E appeals to both liberal and conservative audiences. Liberal audiences seem to be drawn to the blatant environmental message of the film based on its (at least initial) critique of over-consumption and the capitalist economy perpetuating the humans’ cruise above the planet. Bob Mondello of NPR notes, for example, that Staphanie Zacharek of “Salon.com” calls it “an environmental cautionary tale.” Cinephiles like Kirk Honeycutt seemed to react to the homage to silent comedies, as does Peter Travers when he notes how WALL-E and Eve share a relationship that evokes “Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp and Virginia Cherrill’s blind flower girl in City Lights.”

Conservative Christians feel the film fills a wholesome niche, valorizing values like conservation. Charlotte Allen, a conservative reviewer for The Los Angeles Times, for example, asserts that “if WALL-E is didactic, what it has to teach is profoundly conservative. For starters, the film never even goes near the climate-crusading vocabulary of “global warming,” “carbon footprints,” or even “green.” Allen suggests instead that

“the crime of how humans vacate Earth isn’t failure to drive a Prius but strewing detritus. Conservatives detest litterbugs and other parasites who expect others to clean up after them. WALL-E champions hard work, faithfulness to duty and the fact that even a dreary job like garbage-collecting can be meaningful and fulfilling.”

According to Allen, the film “isn’t denigrating consumerism but passive dependency.” And, Allen continues, the film “celebrates Western civilization.”

For us, WALL-E presents the most powerful environmental statement made by either Disney or Pixar studios: We must protect earth and its resources because leaving it behind cannot effectively preserve humankind. Instead, humankind remains only because it is artificially sustained and separate from the natural world it ruined and then rejected until a robot named WALL-E intervenes. Compared to other recent Disney animated films such as Home on the Range (2004), Chicken Little (2005), or The Wild (2006), and dystopic science fiction movies of the 20th Century, however, WALL-E draws on nostalgia to strengthen its argument that not only has humanity destroyed earth, but that humans — with the help of the robot left to clean up the mess — can and should restore it to its more natural previous state.

Although many reviewers note the film's nostalgic appeal, however, none of them connect this nostalgia with nature. Instead, they highlight WALL-E’s nostalgia for human artifacts without connecting those artifacts with the natural world. Bob Mondello’s NPR review notes WALL-E’s homage to Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, stating he is “just as gratified by their look back 70 years to silent movies as [he is] by their look forward 700 years to a silent planet.” A. O. Scott declares the film “Chaplinesque in its emotional purity” and notes WALL-E’s “collection of treasures, including Zippo lighters, nuts and bolts, and a Rubik’s cube” as evidence that “some of that stuff turned out to be useful, interesting, and precious. And some of it may even possess something like a soul.” And David Denby calls the film “a work of tragic nostalgia,” asserting,

"In the ruins of a great American city, WALL-E, a robotic trash collector and compactor, continues to go about his duties after the human presence has been blown away by billowing waves of noxious dust. Accompanied only by a cockroach, WALL-E trolls among the detritus of the vanished culture; the junk items he finds become fetishes for him. He holds on to plastic forks, hubcaps, and Zippo lighters, and throws away a diamond ring while keeping the felt box."

Yet he too connects this nostalgia only to human artifacts — consumer goods that might be found at Buy N Large, the “box store” that controls Earth and its space station, the Axiom.

For us, on the other hand, WALL-E supports its environmental rhetoric in two ways: It draws on three types of nostalgia that ultimately point to images of nature as both individual and collective eco-memory, and it explores WALL-E’s movement from tragic to comic ecological hero, an evolution of environmental adaptation that coincides with that of nature, according to ecocritics like Joseph Meeker.

Nostalgia has been critiqued, reified, and recovered in the past few decades, with a resurgence of research in memory studies complicating negative views of nostalgia built on postmodern views. Postmodern responses to nostalgia critique its move toward essentialism. In her 1988 article, “Nostalgia: A Polemic,” Kathleen Stewart engages postmodern cultural critics’ views that see nostalgia as a social disease. According to Stewart,

“Nostalgia, like the economy it runs with, is everywhere. But it is a cultural practice, not a given content; its forms, meanings, and effects shift with the context — it depends on where the speaker stands in the landscape of the present” (227).

Drawing on the work of Roland Barthes, Jean Baudrillard, Walter Benjamin, Pierre Bourdieu, Jonathan Culler, Donna Haraway, Fredric Jameson, and Raymond Williams, Stewart elucidates why nostalgia is such a powerful rhetorical tool, as well. Stewart argues,

“On one ‘level’ there is no longer any place for anyone to stand and nostalgia takes on the generalized function to provide some kind (any kind) of cultural form” (227, emphasis Stewart’s).

According to Stewart, then, nostalgia serves as a powerful rhetorical tool that placates and paralyzes the disenfranchised:

“Nostalgia is an essential, narrative, function of language that orders events temporally and dramatizes them in the mode of ‘that’s that happened,’ that ‘could happen,’ that ‘threaten to erupt at any moment’” (227).

Stewart considers the seductive nature of nostalgia in a postmodern culture not only as culturally situated but as reductively negative, resulting in what she calls mirages — either a “grand hotel” of affluence or a “country cottage” of romantic simplicity. For Stewart, then, nostalgia is a negative consequence of attempting to replace postmodern relativism (labeled good) with an essential past based in recovery of a “self” (labeled bad).

From the perspective of these earlier cultural critics, there is a vanishing point of striving and looking for the pure or untouched, unpolluted past, projected into the wilderness of the past of history. But that really is an ideological project. Much of the past, in terms of today’s environmental issues, is substantially lost because of population explosion, irrevocable global warming, loss of biodiversity, and unknown effects of pollution. Each year people born will not remember the same past as previous generations. Our own literatures consider — through the lens of nostalgia — themes like the vanishing Indian, the disappearance of the buffalo, and the disappearing prairie, in relation to Frederick Jackson Turner’s recuperative thesis of the frontier, a thesis that promotes progress at any cost, whether it be genocide or the expansion of industrialism in the United States.

More recent work, especially in anthropology and cultural studies, however, complicates visions of nostalgia as inherently and inescapably bad. In fact, nostalgia may itself prove a way not only to learn from the past but also to recuperate real community. In Ethel Pinheiro and Cristiane Rose Duarte’s 2004 article, “Loaves and Circuses at Largo da Carioca, Brazil: The Urban Diversity Focused on People-Environment Interactions,” for example, nostalgia in the form of collective memory and appropriation is what “led Largo da Carioca to survive in spite of all the political and urban changes.” This Carioca Square provides a space in which artists and performers share their talents, creating a social center that harks back to plazas of ancient civilizations. Pinheiro and Duarte drew on both an historical evolutive approach and participant-observation data. Historical-evolutive research demonstrated that the open plaza maintains functions from Ancient Greece, Egypt and Mesopotamia, especially those related to performance; and participant-observation resulted in interview data that revealed how “people link social activity in the largo’s physical structure.”

"Answers to a question asking respondents to 'choose a word that could explain the place' illustrated the pull of nostalgia — one of the terms given to explain Largo da Carioca. Others were related, highlighting outdoor performances, culture, and tradition. The piece is esoteric but reveals the positive impact nostalgia might have, actually affecting the city’s shape, ensuring that a people will appropriate a public space for performance and art because their collective memory draws them to it. The power of collective memory — of nostalgia — seems to be manifested in the continuation of Largo da Carioca."

In fact, in the context of WALL-E, nostalgia’s rhetorical power gains force when contextualized first from a personal standpoint and then collectively, building a community that turns the hell Earth has become into a home.

Nostalgia is manifested in several ways in the film. First WALL-E projects human artifacts through a sentimental and nostalgic lens. Then the film harks back to the innocence and heterosexual romance of Main Street U.S.A, as portrayed in clips and music from Hello Dolly and homages to other 20th century tunes and films. Here the film reinforces Disney’s focus on wholesome monogamous heterosexual relationships. But the film also highlights eco-nostalgic images and rhetorical moves like those in Soylent Green (1973), Omega Man (1971) and Silent Running (1972) or the more recent Dark City (1998) and An Inconvenient Truth (2006). In all of these films, images of Earth (or an Earth-like constructed planet) from space introduce a collective nostalgia, a memory of a pristine natural world. In WALL-E, as in the films it responds to, the camera zooms down, closer toward the landscape and a city that looks like New York, closely imitating The Powers of Ten (1968). In the city, nostalgia becomes individualized when the last animated intelligent being on Earth, WALL-E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter-Earth-class), appears, his loneliness showing how vast yet empty a world devoid of nature becomes.

WALL-E recalls a variety of apocalyptic science fiction films, but makes most explicit connections with Silent Running, Soylent Green, Omega Man, and Dark City. Although Soylent Green illustrates the devastating results of not emptiness but overpopulation, while highlighting a nostalgic view of Earth’s past, it too critiques our destruction of the natural environment. Dark City moves us from space to a nostalgic view of a Noir City, but it is nature again that serves as John Murdoch’s motivation — to return the city to a more natural state where life-giving water sustains human and nonhuman nature. And Silent Running foregrounds a tragic hero who yearns for Earth’s pristine forests so much so that he sacrifices himself and his friends, so the last forest — floating in space — can be saved and preserved by a robot that looks like a double of WALL-E. WALL-E also highlights a solitary hero, but that hero, WALL-E, mingles both the singularity of a tragic hero with the community of a comic figure who saves Earth and its former inhabitants from an artificial life. All these films highlight both an individualized and collective nostalgia for an Earth in its most natural state.

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