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July 8, 2008


Wall-E's song

(Warning: Contains a spoiler.)

Once upon a time, in the not-too-distant future, the material world overwhelmed the physical world. In other words, there was so much garbage on earth that it crowded out the people.

Human beings, being human and therefore somewhat intelligent, realized the spot they were in and took off for outer space, leaving a corps of robots to clean up the mess they had made. For several centuries, the bots labored, gathering up debris, compacting it into cubes, and piling them neatly. Over time, the mechanical workers began to fall apart, until only one remained. He took good care of himself. He recharged his solar panels as needed and replaced worn out parts with salvaged ones. Day in and day out, this little Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class continued at his appointed task, with only a single cockroach for company.

But Wall-E was a robot. He didn’t need company. At least, he didn’t at first. As the years went by, however, Wall-E began to change. Seeking shelter from the elements — for survival, not comfort, of course — he created a home for himself. He began to collect odd little artifacts — a light bulb, a doll, a slew of cigarette lighters. He found an old tape of “Hello, Dolly!” and divised a way to screen it. He watched that movie again and again, drawn especially to the singing and the poignant moment when the hero and the heroine join hands. He began to develop a personality.

Wall-E might have continued like this indefinitely, bringing home his treasures, watching his movie, meticulously piling his cubes of trash into rectangular patterns. But one day the city where he lived received a visitor. A lovely, white, ovoid Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator. Eve.

Wall-E, poor lonely Wall-E, immediately fell in love with Eve. He followed her everywhere.  He plied her with presents. He watched over her. But she was a young robot, without his transformative experience. She felt nothing. She was on a mission, assigned to discover whether there was plant life on earth.

It turned out that there was.

Eve dutifully took the tiny plant Wall-E gave her and returned to her space station, followed by her knight in rusty armor. There, in the midst of self-sufficient robots and humans gone flabby from years of weightlessness, he did his best to protect her from harm. Eventually, her precious cargo caught the attention of the ship’s captain, who realized that it was time to return to earth and restore the planet to its former glory.

And so they did. And everyone lived happily for a while, if not forever after.

It’s a good yarn. Pixar made it into a captivating animated film. But like its hero, the film has taken on a life of its own. In Sunday’s New York Times, Frank Rich said,

Mr. McCain should be required to see “Wall-E” to learn just how far adrift he is from an America whose economic fears cannot be remedied by his flip-flop embrace of the Bush tax cuts (for the wealthy) and his sham gas-tax holiday (for everyone else). Mr. Obama should see it to be reminded of just how bold his vision of change had been before he settled into a front-runner’s complacency. Americans should see it to appreciate just how much things are out of joint on an Independence Day when a cartoon robot evokes America’s patriotic ideals with more conviction than either of the men who would be president.

Jessica Jensen, writing in the Huffington Post, said,

The movie is an inspirational environmental call to action, and yet there is no mention of how or where people can learn to cut carbon emissions, save water, reduce their trash production, etc. Why didn’t Pixar put up a simple screen with “ten recommendations for loving planet Earth” at the end of the film — or a link to a site with educational information? It pains me that MILLIONS of people will see this movie and learn nothing about what they can do to save the planet!

On the other hand, Shannen Coffen, writing in the National Review Online, thought the film’s “call to action” went too far. He called the movie “Godforsaken dreck”:

From the first moment of the film, my kids were bombarded with leftist propaganda about the evils of mankind.

Meanwhile, Patrick J. Ford argued in the American Conservative that the movie’s message was actually conservative:

The real tragedy of these callous conservative critics (say that three times fast) is that they are missing the real lessons of the movie, ones I found immediately attractive to a traditional conservative. In the film, it becomes clear that mass consumerism is not just the product of big business, but of big business wedded with big government. In fact, the two are indistinguishable in WALL-E’s future. The government unilaterally provided it’s citizens with everything they needed, and this lack of variety led to Earth’s downfall.

Oh my! In the face of all these heavy hitters, what’s a poor, self-respecting robot to do? He didn’t know he was a political talking point. All he wanted to do was to get the girl.

When my son was little, we went to see the movie “E.T.” I have no great fondness for Steven Spielberg. In fact, my animosity toward his films is a family joke. As we walked out of the theater, I began expounding on the distasteful decisions he’d made in this one. My son listened to the lecture for about a minute before he interrupted: “Mom, it’s just a movie.”

So is “Wall-E.”

This is not to say that we can’t — or shouldn’t — find underlying meaning in movies or other works of art. The possibility of layered interpretations is what distinguishes valuable works from the pedestrian. But during the past few years, we’ve become Johnny One Note, and that note is politics. Johnny sang loud and long during the recent presidential campaign, where candidates trying to express genuine concern for genuine issues found themselves reduced to sound bites and horse-race handicapping. He continues to sing out every time anyone mentions the very serious problems facing Americans — health care, the economy, global warming.

His song drowns out the sounds of reality. It deafens us to what should be a siren’s call, ineluctably drawing us closer to the things we value most — our bodies, our communities, and our natural environment. “Couldn’t hear the brass; couldn’t hear the drum.” All we can hear is Johnny, blowing his political horn.

In contrast, “Wall-E” is nearly a silent film. There’s very little standing between the viewer and the life-and-death situations that the robots find themselves in. Yes, “Wall-E” is just a movie. And Wall-E is just a robot. But even though he is made of metal, not flesh and blood, his anguish — and joy — sings to anyone who listens. It’s up to us to pull the plug on Johnny and so we can hear his song.

Thanks for reading. I’m outta here till next Tuesday.

        — Copyright Betsey Culp 2008