The garbage-made cityscape of an eerily familiar Manhattan condemns Wall E to be seen as a film that prophesies humanity’s tendency to consume and dispose of waste. This is a valid criticism that runs throughout the 2010 Pixar film, but much of the film limns an ironic narrative on technology and our interaction with it. The irony is first seen when Eva makes an appearance. Her Apple-computer-like body is hardly subtle, and, in a nod to twenty years ago, Eva’s head is shaped like one of the Apple monitors that revitalized the brand, offering a sleek, fashionable alternative to the industrial-looking PC – a nice mirror of Wall E, the character.
It’s here that we become enamored with the mismatched love connection between the two, but I think we often forget that Steve Jobs was a majority shareholder of both Pixar and Disney. In one sense, the connection between Wall E and Eva transcends the reported rifts between Jobs and IBM founder Bill Gates. At the same time, the film does little to glamorize the advantages of technology. Rather, much of Wall E magnifies our reliance on technology and how its tendencies to create convenience make us a more sedentary group who transfer our agency into gadgets and gizmos.
The prime example of this reliance is Wall E himself. Nearly 700 years prior to the year in which the movie is set, everyone on Earth leaves to take their “five year vacation.” (Here, we could definitely discuss the use of advertising slogans and the euphemisms therein: the five year vacation is a more pleasant way of telling the public that the Earth is becoming nearly inhabitable, so it has to be cleaned up before a safe return is possible, but I digress.) As most of the population orbits above the Earth on a veritable globe sponsored by “Buy N Large,” the human detritus is left is the hands of a tiny robot whose function is to compact the wealth of garbage and refuse into 1x1x1 cubes. Here, the cube represents both the futility of Wall E’s mission in the face of an ocean of garbage, but also the reimagining of product as something that ostensibly useful (Wall E lines the formerly inhabited skyscrapers with the blocks of garbage) but ultimately useless (it’s garbage!). The importance in the latter connects to another form of reliance on technology, in which we are bombarded with various product names, logos, and slogans, but are unable to find much differentiation between the products themselves. The passengers’ transition from a blue spandex suit to hide the flowing cellulite to a red one is made only by suggestion and offers no discernible purpose other than to fit in to what the on-board computer deems trendy or cool.
The depth of the film – much like The Incredibles – is its willingness to mock the audience. For the most part, Wall E is silent. Eva and Wall E recite the other’s name, and “directive” is muttered to remind us that they are still robots. But the interaction between them is human, and thus, our connection, understanding, and empathy to their attraction comments on our inability to function without gleaning the world through the lens of technology. A less subtle exemplification within Wall E is when the virtual screens that hover in front of John and Mary’s faces, distracting them and the rest of the population from any other living body, are disrupted, and their hands accidentally touch, reminding them of their proximity to one another, and reminding us that we subconsciously humanize our gadgets and gizmos.
Pixar is not revolutionary in presenting this idea. Sherry Turkle and Nicholas Carr have both written about our interactions with technology, the positives and negatives intertwined with the convenience of “Goolging it,” and how the youth views their technology as a living, breathing part of the family. However, my third viewing of Wall E was the first time that I realized I had transferred my understanding of human connection on to two computer-generated robots. Perhaps my seeing two computer-generated people (the couple from The Incredibles) is more understandable, but my viewing of them as real people – and not cartoons – is doubly troubling. Wall E presents a world in which our human interactions are quaternary, behind our food, drink, consumer products, and convenience (not necessarily in that order).
Wall E also looks at the extreme ends of technology, suggesting that the most radical way to save ourselves is to stop being human, or rather, accept our flaws and eliminate them by disallowing our own agency, as opposed to trying to fix them. What I mean to suggest is that the future world of the floating Buy-N-Large is pristinely clean and organized because robots have been programmed to detect all dirt, handle all inconveniences, and keep the world spinning, all the while removing humans from the floor. Instead, they are cosseted in reclining chairs that hover above set paths illuminated on various decks.
In the end, Wall E posits that the easiest way to fix what ailed us was the remove humans from the equation and relegate them to money-spewing consumers that keep production producing. However, the film also condemns this tactic, and, to return to the irony within the film, condemns our reliance on technology, suggesting that we need to find a balance, lest we become mere machines ourselves.