Intersections

Celebrating WALL-E’s 10th Birthday

by: 
Michael Cox, PhD

For those with eyes to see, the movie WALL-E (Disney and Pixar, 2008) can be something of an apocalypse, revealing God’s Kingdom and stoking a Christian imagination.

800 years from now the remnant of humanity exists on the Axiom, a space cruise ship. The high-tech deck chairs supporting their overfed/corpulent bodies double as hovercraft to move them around the ship. All interaction between humans is mediated by a device. Every hobby is virtual. Every meal comes in a cup.

The trip on the Axiom was initially billed as a five-year cruise. But 700 years later, the remnant is unaware of any other existence, or indeed, of their ancestral home which had been so thoroughly trashed (literally) that it can no longer support life of any kind. In the meantime, robots have been left behind to “clean up the mess while you’re away.” WALL-E, the main character, is the last of these robots still functioning.

This is the premise of WALL-E, released only one year after the release of the original iPhone. If “Disney and Pixar” wasn’t a spoiler, consider this your alert. The remainder of this piece assumes you’ve seen the movie.

As the plot unfolds, the audience is confronted with a subtle but profound question: Who is the human here? The answer is clear as WALL-E saves humankind from an entertainment-centered, sedentary existence. But this post-apocalyptic flick can reveal something to us about what it means to flourish as humans—and maybe just save us from ourselves.

Beauty

We get to know WALL-E by following him as he does his day-job, the same job he’s done for over 700 years: cleaning up. Without the audience realizing it, the first half of the movie passes with no dialogue and very few words. This should not be confused for slow plot development.

For 700 years, WALL-E has diligently cleaned up trash, but somewhere his programming either malfunctions or develops “emotion.” At some point he begins appreciating beauty among the trash, hoarding small trinkets, and storing the treasures in his living quarters.

In the midst of a uniformly rust-brown world, these trinkets provide color—literally. A Rubik’s cube, colored Christmas lights that illuminate WALL-E’s shed, and, significantly, a plant—one of the only green items in the entire movie.

Central to the movie’s plot is a VHS tape of “Hello, Dolly.” The clips that WALL-E finds so beautiful are brief snatches of the musical’s music and dance routines. WALL-E records the music on his hard-drive and plays it as his personal soundtrack. Throughout the movie, WALL-E’s music inspires many who have ears to hear the beautiful.

WALL-E’s “directive” is to clean up trash. But while pilfering through all this trash he has developed a sense of beauty.

Relationship

As we come to love WALL-E and his appreciation of beauty, we also realize that it is not good for WALL-E to be alone. (His only interaction is with a single surviving cockroach.) All of this silence and lack of dialogue plunge us into the depths of WALL-E’s loneliness. Then quite surprisingly, a reconnaissance rocket lands and leaves behind another robot, “E.V.E.” (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator). As WALL-E and EVE get to know one another, WALL-E’s appreciation for beauty hijacks EVE’s directive. She is wowed by his Christmas lights and Rubik’s cube and is inspired by “Hello, Dolly.”

The generic chick-flick plotline tells us that WALL-E is doing well. They’re about to hold hands! It is at this point that WALL-E brings out his most precious and impressive treasure, a plant. But, quite inexplicably, Eve’s personality is taken over by her directive. She immediately collects the plant and shuts down. Now, bereft of the only friend he’s had in centuries, WALL-E’s loneliness is deeper than ever.

Beauty and Relationship

These themes of relationship and beauty are the keys to the movie’s plot. Just as WALL-E awakened EVE, his arrival upon the Axiom provides him opportunity to serve as the apocalyptic prophet as he pulls back the veil both for “malfunctioning” robots (whose AI needs “repair”) and humans. For example, WALL-E finds himself in the “repair ward,” a sort of hospital for malfunctioning robots. Here he inspires a cult following of misfits through his music, creativity, and attention to these robots as individuals.

Similarly, WALL-E reveals both beauty and connection to the humans who have been programmed to behave a certain way. Their entire existence is mediated by their personal screens and, because of this, they miss out on beauty and true connection. In what is one of the most beautiful scenes in any animated film, WALL-E and Eve find themselves outside the Axiom—in outer space. As the plot reaches its zenith, the themes of beauty and relationship converge. For two humans whose eyes were opened by previous encounters with the prophet, the dance’s beauty sparks a relationship. For (perhaps) the first time in their lives, they touch another human being.

WALL-E pulls back the curtain for us. For those with willing eyes, he might just spark a Christian imagination for a MedTech world. He shows us that the Kingdom is coming all around us. It is very near—in the simple beauties of life and in one another! Will we have eyes to see beauty? To see one another? Or are we the robots, programmed by our machines to interact with the whole world through myPhone?