Digital Patmos: Vol 1 Issue 3 | WALL-E: More Than A Robot Animation
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WALL-E: More Than A Robot Animation

WALL-E: More Than A Robot Animation

Pixar film WALL-E is set in a post-apocalyptic era where the earth is desolate and mankind live aboard giant starliners, known as the Axiom, while technological innovations such as the titular Wall-E attempt to clean up and restore the planet to habitable conditions. EVE robots are periodically sent back to Earth to search for signs of the earth’s recovery in the form of a living plant, which may be used to activate the ship’s hyperjump back to Earth for mankind to reinhabit the planet. The prominence of technology and more specifically, robots, is depicted through the overreliance of humans aboard the Axiom on these technologies, even for simple tasks such as communication and locomotion. Hover chairs constitute the main mode of transport within the ship, and conversations are mostly held with others via a holographic screen, even if the people involved in the conversation may be right next to each other. Among these innovations, a significant observation is the rise of robotic consciousness, as seen by how the film portrays robots as being capable of emotion and making decisions autonomously. Wall-E is introduced as the sole remaining functioning robot on Earth, and his loneliness is portrayed in his excitement when he first meets a cockroach and later, EVE.

While most films of the genre such as Avengers: Age of Ultron and the Terminator series tend to marry the downfall of mankind with the rise of robotic consciousness, WALL-E subverts this trope in that the rise of robotic consciousness may not necessarily be detrimental to mankind, but may instead prove to be beneficial. Notably, the success of the protagonists in delivering the plant to the holo-detector can be attributed to the cooperation between the robots and humans, which in turn shapes the course of humanity in the film. Building on this observation, this paper argues that technology and mankind are not incompatible with each other, and that technological innovations have the potential to aid man in charting the future of mankind and in his return to human nature. Rather than being something that man overly relies on, technology, in the words of Rod Dreher, should be “used to help humans cultivate their true nature – that it must be subordinate to human flourishing and help move that along” (2008). As opposed to adopting a cynical attitude that rejects technology completely, WALL-E encourages its viewers to be accepting of technology and recognise that, notwithstanding the negativity associated with the rise of robotic consciousness in other films of the genre, it possesses the potential to bring about positive change as well.

The increasing prevalence of technology in our daily lives has often been accompanied by fears of technology taking man’s place. In fact, such fears do not constitute recent development and date back to the 1800s when the Luddites, a group of English textile workers and weavers, destroyed weaving machinery out of fear that their skills would become obsolete. Although we do not witness such acts being carried out these days, the fear of new technology (or technophobia) remains entrenched in the minds of some and has evolved in the direction that it not only threatens the usefulness of man in terms of skills, but in that it also threatens the very existence of mankind. As technology becomes increasingly advanced, people fear the day when man’s own innovations turn against humanity. Upon closer observation, we see these fears encoded in Hollywood films of the genre, where full-fledged apocalypses develop as a consequence of robots gaining sentience and turning against their creators. While WALL-E does not go to this extent, the film does present instances where humans aboard the Axiom are heavily reliant on robots. For instance, when John falls off his hover chair, he is left sprawling on the ground helplessly, requiring robot assistance to help him up. Additionally, we see how even routine things like washing up are left to be done by the robots. The portrayal of the vulnerability of humans in the case of WALL-E is arguably less tragic, but the idea that it leaves viewers with is equally, if not more, uneasy – the idea that humans have traded their autonomy for automation.

Turns out robots have a romantic side too!

While such instances seem to paint a bleak picture of the relationship between robots and humans, WALL-E focuses on how, despite theseeming overreliance on technology in the film, humans and robots are not incompatible with each other, in that they share similar characteristics and are able to work well together to achieve a desired outcome. The use of CGI animation in the film helps to convey this message by giving its robotic characters life through the incorporation of emotions and body movements. Most prominently, the visual cues in the film seem to suggest a romantic relationship blossoming between Wall-E and EVE, in addition to scenes where they do things that human couples usually do, such as watching the sunset together.

Further human element is injected into these characters through the use of fluid motions of the robots, especially when Wall-E and EVE dance in sync while in outer space. The film avoids the uncanny valley effect by designing traditional-looking robots, where the more human-looking robots and traditional-looking robots tend to be more well-received by viewers as compared to rigid, humanoid robots (Walters et al., 2008). By making these robotic characters lifelike and giving them some form of consciousness, the interactions between robots and man would seem more natural rather than strange, which would seem to suggest that robots and humans are not entirely different after all and may be able to work well together as partners. This is best illustrated in the film when both humans and robots form a human-robot-chain to pass the plant to Wall-E and EVE, and the seamless flow of the process points to the possibility that despite the negative image portrayed by the overreliance on technology, there is still room for teamwork between both races, and that the two are not entirely incompatible.

Beyond the compatibility of robots and humans, WALL-E also seeks to highlight the potential that technology has in helping to shape the course of humanity, which would not have been possible to achieve through the efforts of man alone in the context of the film. The film presents crossroads at which the pilot of the Axiom, Captain McCrea, may choose which path to take – to return to earth and work tirelessly to restore the planet or to continue living in luxury aboard the Axiom. Though he chooses the former, it would not have been possible for him to embark on that path had it not been for the help of Wall-E, EVE and the other malfunctioning robots. As much as human agency is involved, WALL-E is clear in that humans may not always be fully capable of accomplishing their goals alone, especially when it concerns larger things such as the future of humanity. While the fear of being subservient to technology is explored in the film when AUTO, the robotic co-pilot of many generations of pilots, begins going against the will of its human captain, WALL-E contrasts this antagonism with the actions of the ‘good’ robots, Wall-E and EVE. The robots in the film are given significant roles to play, and although both sides are simply following the directives given by different human agents, we see how this antagonism is played out in an exaggerated manner through the emphasis on the drastic differences in the outcomes of either side ‘winning,’ the eventual result of the conflict being mankind’s return to Earth.

Arriving back home for the first time in 700 years.

Mankind’s return to Earth is symbolic of man’s return to human nature. As a whole, WALL-E further explores the idea that robots possess the potential to help humans return to their human nature, both metaphorically – facing obstacles rather than running away from them – and physically, through the relieving of man’s dependency on machines. In the physical sense, we see how Wall-E’s interference with Mary’s holographic screen results in the ‘opening of her eyes’ and her appreciation of the world beyond the screen, most notably as she admires the beauty of the constellations without her screen and later, Wall-E and EVE’s ‘dance’ in outer space. Metaphorically speaking, we do see instances of this return to human nature as well, most prominent in how Captain McCrea refuses to be dissuaded by AUTO even though he is now aware of the desolate state of the planet thanks to EVE’s recording during her reconnaissance on Earth. Seeing as to how different the earth looks like as compared to the images his computer system, Captain McCrea rebuts, “Out there is our home! Home, AUTO! And its in trouble. I can’t just sit here and do anything. That’s all I’ve ever done. That’s all anyone in this blasted ship has ever done. Nothing!” When AUTO tries to convince the captain that staying on the Axiom will ensure their survival, he responds indignantly that he doesn’t want to survive, but to live. We see how the captain is adamant about doing something about the planet, and he instead insists on choosing to face the problem of human degradation of the earth rather than continue running away from the problem and living life as per status quo on the Axiom. To him, the essence of living encompasses taking ownership of circumstances rather than running away from them. In an ironic twist of events, technology plays a key role in relieving mankind of its dependencies on machines and robots. And for the first time in the film, we see the lack of technology in the scene, where the people are once again using their limbs to stand on their own two feet and actively engaging in the activity of nursing the plant. This is a significant development on its own in that humans are no longer confined to their hovering chairs, especially when we think about how John lay helplessly on the ground when he fell off his chair early on in the film.

Back to Where It First Began.

As an animated film, WALL-E encodes the fear of overreliance on technology in a subtle manner without appearing pessimistic on the condition of human nature. It addresses the issues faced in modern times and offers an alternative mindset as compared to one of fear. Rather than adopt the same mindset that the Luddites possessed towards technology, WALL-E encourages its viewers to instead embrace technology and use it to complement the flourishing of mankind. While there is no definite conclusion to the film, the epilogue does provide a hint of what transpired after the humans reinhabited the earth, with each scene depicting mankind and the robots working alongside one another to restore the earth in a seemingly utopic manner. WALL-E also underscores the important idea that technology is not a substitute for hard work but rather, complements it. As a film which incorporates CGI animation to inject life into its robotic characters, WALL-E is clear in that avoiding technology is not the way to move forward, but that technology is here to stay for a long time to come. While some might criticise Captain McCrea’s decision, it is worth pondering what Dreher says about human nature, in that it “withers without struggle, without cultivation, without community, without companionship” (2008). Building on Dreher’s point, technology should not be there to nanny us, but to complement us in our daily lives, as it has done so in the past. It should not be meant to remove spirit of struggle, but to aid us in overcoming obstacles in various fields. Ultimately, the film demonstrates the enormous potential that technology possesses in shaping the course of human history and man’s return to human nature, further emphasising that there is nothing erroneous in embracing our technological innovations as partners, as long as humanity does not lose sight of its human nature.


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