WALL-E opens in the year 2805 after the arrival of the apocalypse; the Earth has become a hazardous and toxic environment, rendered uninhabitable by the sheer amount of trash produced by human beings. Only one last trash compactor robot named WALL-E is left functioning on Earth, packing the trash on the planet into neat little cubes, while the human population has migrated to space to a mammoth spacecraft called the Axiom, manufactured by the conglomerate firm Buy’N’Large (BNL). A mere glance at the film shows that BNL is omnipresent in the post-apocalyptic world of WALL-E. Its logo (curiously blue, red and white, the exact same colours of the flag of the United States of America) is always lurking somewhere in the background of each scene, either stamped on the defunct vehicles and buildings on Earth, or featured prominently on the sides and interior of the Axiom. The conglomerate is the sole and final victor of capitalist markets, becoming a monopoly of all goods and services in the economy. Additionally, BNL is shown to have replaced all forms of governing authority, with the responsibility of evacuating the human population from the toxic planet falling upon its shoulde rs. The portrayal of BNL in the film seemingly reflects the expansion of several multi-national corporations in the real world today: firms such as Apple, Google and Facebook are constantly acquiring new subsidiaries, and their logos have become ubiquitous. Yet the similarities between the film and real life are unsettling, for it is BNL that implictly caused the apocalypse in WALL-E by encouraging their customers to consume. Is the film perhaps trying to imply that the rise of large multi-national conglomerates (MNCs) in the real world will also lead to the apocalypse, following the trajectory set by BNL in the diegesis? What exactly is the role of BNL in the film, and why has it been portrayed the way it has? This article answers these questions by making use of Heather Urbanski’s Nightmares Model to suggest that the portrayal of BNL in such a manner has allowed it to become a symbol for capitalism, and that it has come to represent society’s fears and anxieties regarding the pervasiveness of capitalist practices. More specifically, this paper will show that BNL is representative of two societal fears regarding capitalism: the fear that large conglomerates will subvert personal autonomy, and the fear that large conglomerates will largely influence, and eventually gain full control of the political sphere.
According to Scholes and Rabkin, speculative fiction provides “literature with new symbols” for approaching new concerns in the contemporary world. Just as Darth Vader and Big Brother have become symbols of evil and a surveillance state respectively through their portrayals in speculative fiction works, BNL as the only firm left standing in the WALL-E economy, has become a symbol of capitalism gone rogue. Urbanski posits that science fiction is “essentially a human genre that reflects human nightmares, sounding warnings regarding the consequences of our actions in the hopes those consequences never become reality”. She further articulates her position by presenting the Nightmares Model, in which she classifies the nightmares contained in speculative fiction into three categories: Science and Technology, Power and The Unknown. That being so, using Urbanski’s model, it can be said that our nightmares regarding Power, and MNCs wielding it, is encoded in WALL-E, through the portrayal of BNL as the sole governing authority in the diegesis.
Multi-national conglomerates and individual freedom
In WALL-E, BNL is shown to be omnipresent, with its logo lurking in the background of multiple scenes, as well as featured on the clothes of the everyone onboard the Axiom. In this manner, BNL has been used as a collective symbol for large-multi-national corporations in the real world, and its portrayal in the film reflects societal fears about the omnipresence of these conglomerates in our lives. Although WALL-E exists in the realm of fiction, the scenes in the film showcasing the inability of the people onboard the Axiom to escape from the presence of BNL is reminiscent of daily life in the physical world, where it is almost impossible for people to avoid being faced with the logos and advertisements of MNCs such as McDonald’s or Google. While it is implied that other firms existed before BNL in the diegesis – as can be seen from the Rubik’s Cube, video cassettes and iPod that WALL-E treasures – it is clear that BNL is the final victor in the competitive market system. By the post-apocalyptic year of 2805, BNL has managed to either acquire or drive out its competitors to become a monopoly, providing all kinds of goods and services from groceries to robotics to banking. BNL advertisements flood both the desolate landscape on Earth and the sterile interior onboard the Axiom, urging consumers to be “hungry now”, “drink now” and “shop live”. This scene mirrors the landscape of shopping districts in major cities such as New York City, London and Tokyo, where flashing billboards advertise the latest products launched by firms like Apple and McDonald’s.
The flashing billboards of New York’s Times Square are reflected in the obnoxious BNL advertisements of WALL-E.
Furthermore, BNL is shown to have almost complete control over the actions of the human population onboard the Axiom, and this scenario reflects fears of multi-national corporations undermining personal autonomy that are present in society today. The influence of BNL on the actions of the human population is representative of how MNCs impact what their consumers eat, do, or even think, in actuality. Our anxieties regarding the loss of individual free will due to this phenomenon can be found in the exaggerated depiction of the citizens of the Axiom as a bone-less, zombie-like species that does the bidding of BNL. Entranced by the personal entertainment screens in front of them (provided by BNL), the people on the Axiom zoom around on hover chairs, oblivious to their surroundings while the public broadcast system announces, “Buy’N’Large, everything you need to be happy! Your day is very important to us!”. Everyone on the spacecraft is too engrossed in their entertainment screens to question BNL’s ability to provide them with “happiness”, and seems perfectly content to let BNL run their lives for them. As the ship’s advertising system declares, “Mmm, time for lunch, in a cup!”, the scene cuts to an image of people heeding BNL’s “suggestions” immediately as they suck enthusiastically from large paper cups. Later in the film, when yet another BNL advertisement suggests, “Attention Axiom shoppers! Try blue, it’s the new red!”, everyone instantly presses a button, transforming their outfit into the suggested shade of blue. These scenes serve to showcase the lack of individuality and autonomous thought among the citizens of the Axiom as BNL dictates their every action. Subdued by the array of entertainment options and material comforts provided by BNL, the people in WALL-E are “imperial and insecure, sovereign over individual choices but subject to the ship’s grand control”.
This power dynamic between the human population and BNL in the film is paralleled, to a lesser extent, in the real world between consumers of products and MNCs; Consumers rush to purchase the latest products the moment MNCs drop their advertisements, best illustrated through the case of Apple’s iPhone products. Furthermore, as MNCs expand and provide us with a dizzying array of goods, democratisation of pleasure occurs, with more products readily available for more people to enjoy. Yet “the democratisation of pleasure, far from nurturing individualism amounts to mass enslavement” as “capitalism manufactures the markets (and subjects) essential to its own expansion”. Therefore, because we become increasingly reliant on MNCs to provide us with the products we love and depend on, a loss of personal autonomy and decision-making occurs, and our anxieties regarding this are what WALL-E encodes.
MNCs in the political sphere
WALL-E also portrays an exaggerated version of the political realm in our reality, and the representation of BNL as the sole governing authority in the diegesis has been used as a hyperbole to illustrate the increasing influence that MNCs have on political decisions in real life. For example, it was seen that internet giants have sway over political matters when accusations surfaced that Facebook had swayed the results of the 2016 United States presidential elections by allowing the spread of fraudulent news on its social media platform. On top of that, as MNCs increasingly expand in size, the amount of lobbying power and economic power also increases correspondingly, blurring the line between business and politics. As Simon explains, “as brands reach deeper into daily life, they have usurped local, regional, and even national political authority … it is almost as if citizens have outsourced their politics from the voting booth to the supermarket”. Such a phenomenon is amplified in the fictional world of WALL-E, where BNL has replaced the government. During the apocalypse, it is BNL’s Global CEO Shelby Forthright, instead of the leader of a national government or international political union, who announces the evacuation plan through a telecast. A scene showing torn and tattered newspapers scattered around the desolate landscape of the Earth informs us that BNL had taken over news reporting outlets as well, and that the BNL Times had provided updates on the severity of the apocalypse with headlines such as “Too much trash!! Earth covered” and “BNL CEO declares global emergency”. The proliferation of BNL in all aspects of society in WALL-E has consequently left no space or need for any political organisation to exercise its authority. Thus, in the film, BNL does more than influence the political realm; it has in fact subsumed the political realm, transcending its role as a mere company.
WALL-E thus encodes our anxieties about the increasing influence that MNCs have in the political sphere. It is possible to view the scenario in WALL-E where BNL rules the world as our worst nightmares come true, where MNCs have become so complicit with government that they become one and the same. Our anxieties regarding the political domination by MNCs have been raised countless times by politicians, scholars and laymen alike, such as when Jonathan Taplin, author of Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy, declared, “It doesn’t matter which side of the political aisle you’re on, what matters is these are the largest corporations in the world and they [have] accumulated too much political power.” The setting in which the Global CEO delivers the announcement to forsake the Earth in the film is almost identical to the setting in which the President of the United States delivers his messages during press conferences in real life, with the only difference between the two scenes being the replacement of the American crest with the blue-and-white BNL logo. This scene in the film illustrates how capitalism has allowed BNL to gain such immense power that it has jurisdiction outside of the market, replacing any form of political organisation to make decisions regarding the life and death of the human population on Earth. This is also representative of our nightmares of a firm like Facebook, Google or Amazon growing so large that it has the power to replace the democratic government of the United States, arguably the most powerful government in the world. In this manner, WALL-E reflects societal concerns that MNCs have grown so powerful that they are capable of usurping the established political (democratic) order and replacing it with totalitarian regimes.
Examining the context in which WALL-E was released – in the year 2008, at the peak of the global financial meltdown caused in part by huge international banking corporations – the relevance of the nightmares that are embodied by BNL is even more significant. By imagining BNL in a post-apocalyptic context, WALL-E realises its viewers’ anxieties about MNCs achieving world domination; perhaps, the audience even comes to a startling realisation that we are already en route to this eerie, dystopian scenario. But the film also tells us that all is not lost. WALL-E tells us thus: just as the captain of the Axiom defies BNL’s orders by bringing the human population back to Earth to start anew, we can overthrow the influence that MNCs have on our daily lives to return to a state of independence.
 WALL-E, DVD, directed by Andrew Stanton (2008; Emeryville: Pixar Aimation Studios, 2008)
 Robert Scholes and Eric S.Rabkin, Science Fiction: History, Science, Vision (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 169.
 Heather Urbanski, Plagues, Apocalypes and Bug-Eyed Monsters: How Speculative Fiction Shows Us Our Nightmares (Jefferson, NC: MacFarland & Company, Inc., 2007) 11
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 “Buy n Large.” Pixar Wiki. Accessed 23 November, 2017. http://pixar.wikia.com/wiki/Buy_n_Large
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 Hugh McNaughtan, “Distinctive consumption and popular anti-consumerism: The case of WALL-E,” Continuum 26, no. 5 (2012): 754.
 Bryant Simon, “Not going to Starbucks: Boycotts and the out-sourcing of politics in the branded world,” Journal of Consumer Culture 11, no. 2 (2011): 147.
 Marco D. Cava, Elizabeth Weise and Jessica Guynn, “Facebook, Google and Amazon too big? Why that question keeps coming up,” Phys.org, September 25, 2017, https://phys.org/news/2017-09-facebook-google-amazon-big.html.