2009, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 51, spring 2009
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.
Cultural artifacts and a first level of nostalgia:
WALL-E as tragic 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:
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.
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