Guest post by Abby Carmichael.
When I first saw WALL-E in summer 2008, I was at a drive-in theater in Door County, Wisconsin, lying under the stars. Onscreen, I saw fantastical sequences of robot romance unfold in an animated outer space, but just behind WALL-E and EVE’s (or, as our hero says, Eve-ah) tale, I could see a sky filled with constellations telling stories of their own. For me, this backdrop anchored WALL-E in reality. So, too, did the film’s poignant address of the realities of climate change and the future of our species on a rapidly dying planet.
In one scene of WALL-E, our robotic hero finds himself in the Captain’s Quarters on the ship Axiom. (Note: the ship’s name is likely a tribute to the Axiom Corporation, a data collection group which creates profiles on individuals’ personal information, spending habits, and belief systems in order to improve marketing capabilities.) WALL-E and the ship’s captain watch a clip of a fictional former U.S. president explaining that there is no hope for mankind’s survival on earth, and that they should take refuge on the airship indefinitely.
What makes the clip so striking, though, is its visual juxtaposition from the rest of the film — the clip appears to be recorded video footage, rather than computer animation. This contrast is an unusual one for Pixar, and frankly, it’s a bit unsettling to see a live-action segment play on a computer screen in an animated room. But the contrast creates an important effect: it allows us, in our present reality, to understand that this film isn’t about a fictionalized alternate universe — it’s about our future.
The fact that the former president, who represents humanity’s last moments of presence on Earth, appears in a visual form that we recognize as “real” compared to the rest of the film is striking and significant. It shows us that, in the context of the movie, humankind is a character which possesses agency. We are brought out of the role of viewer and into the story as potential influencers of the film’s direction and outcome, and we are made aware that life on the Axiom exists only because we failed to preserve our home.
In addition to arguing that its audience is the cause for the evacuation of Earth, WALL-E also makes plain that its viewers can, indeed, solve these problems — even now, when it feels too late. This is where resilience comes into play.
Humans as they exist on the Axiom are strange compared to what we look like today. They move around on hovering chairs, consume all their meals through a straw, and rarely communicate with one another except via video call. The ship’s captain is generally passive, and it’s not until very late in the film that he even seems to care about the Axiom’s return to earth. But, once he sees the tiny plant that WALL-E and EVE have brought from earth, his interest piques. He discovers information about civilizations, nature, history — and realizes that the Axiom was not meant to be humankind’s final destination. With the help of two “rogue robots” (and two Axiom passengers who, thanks to WALL-E, tear their faces away from their screens just long enough to find love at first sight), the captain successfully lands the ship back on Earth.
WALL-E ends with a widening shot of the captain kneeling beside a group of young children as they put EVE’s plant sample in the dirt. He explains that what they’re doing is called farming, and that “you kids are going to grow all kinds of plants: vegetable plants, pizza plants…” This line is particularly significant because it shows that even though he is a grown man, the captain knows little more than the children do about nourishing the earth.
The captain’s lack of agricultural knowledge is a fixable issue, and it’s not the one that stands in the way of a sustainable relationship between people and the planet. WALL-E aims to tell us that we can solve seemingly hopeless climate issues, even at the eleventh hour, if only we choose to address them. What’s important isn’t whether we as individuals understand sustainability’s finer points and practices, but whether we as a species are committed to bringing sustainability to life.
So, when you head to the Memorial Stadium this Thursday to watch WALL-E against a sky full of stars, take a moment to look behind the screen. Consider the resilience of humankind, and of the planet, and how the two are woven together in this feature. And know that a tiny seed of investment in the future of our species and our home can grow into the solutions we so desperately need.
Abby Carmichael is a Themester 2021 Senior Intern and Creative Director at the Indiana Daily Student. Part of the class of 2023, Abby is pursuing degrees in American Studies and Media Advertising. She is also pursuing a minor in political science.