Conservatives love to complain about Hollywood liberalism, but most of the political films that shuffle through the cineplexes are standard-issue leftie hackwork that neither persuade nor succeed. You can see them coming a mile away. And then you get something like “Wall-E,” Pixar’s postmodern masterpiece, which is one of the most subversive films I’ve ever seen.
But get this: If anything, its politics are traditionalist conservative (as distinct from whatever it is the Republican Party is peddling these days). To be fair, that label is too reductive. “Wall-E” goes much deeper than contemporary politics. It’s a brilliant Aristotelian, even agrarian, critique of modernity, and the fate of man under consumerist technopoly. It’s also a lot of fun. (Warning: Spoilers follow).
Ben Burtt, Elissa Knight, Jeff Garlin, Fred Willard, John Ratzenberger, Kathy Najimy, Sigourney Weaver
(Walt Disney Pictures; US theatrical: 27 Jun 2008 (General release); UK theatrical: 18 Jul 2008 (General release); 2008)
Set in the distant dystopian future, “Wall-E” tells the story of a grubby little robot, the title character, left behind to help clean up Earth. Humanity, having trashed the planet with junk from its over-consumption, has lit out for deep space aboard a luxury space liner called the Axiom. When the film opens, “Wall-E” is plugging away on a five-year plan to clean the lifeless planet and make it fit for human habitation again; it has taken seven centuries.
Lovesick Wall-E finds his way to the Axiom chasing Eve, a sentry robot who, like Noah’s dove, delivers a newfound Earth seedling to the Axiom’s captain, who in turn is supposed to lead a recolonization of the planet. But why should humanity return? In their long exile, they’ve grown extremely fat and happy aboard the Axiom, which was provided for them by the quasi-governmental BuyNLarge corporation.
There is no material need or desire that BNL doesn’t meet. BNL’s sophisticated technology ferries the obese humans around the ship on floating chairs (they’ve lost the ability to walk), feeds them junk and keeps them entertained. The people, strangers to one another, have outsourced the raising of their children to the company-run system, which teaches them propaganda that advances BNL’s interests.
These infantilized people have lost all cultural memory, having become perfect - and perfectly controllable - consumers. They are wards of a therapeutic state, of a self-chosen soft tyranny that Tocqueville called “democratic despotism.”
Their idea of politics is to order their collective life around satisfying individual desires. Having no memory of the past, they’ve lost touch with what it means to be human. Their lack of consciousness of their own predicament is their tragedy. It’s this spotless pseudo-Eden that the plant Eve carries within her, as well as her dirty little friend Wall-E, threatens to destroy.
Technology, the film’s ambiguous villain, allowed for the development of Earth’s consumer economy, which gave humanity the opportunity to indulge boundlessly. It also created the fantastic spaceship that allowed humanity to escape the planet it ruined by denying its own limits.
But technology also shaped humans’ consciousness. It led them to break with nature and see technology as something that delivered them from work and struggle. As humanity became more technologically sophisticated, the film argues, they became ever more divorced from nature, and their own nature. They developed a culture and society that was mechanistic and artificial, as opposed to organic and natural.
Wall-E contends that what makes us fully human is cultivating our own deepest nature by working, and working together. In a stunningly iconic image at the film’s end, the Tree of Life on the new earth grows out of an old work boot. Humanity renews the face of the Earth through its own labor, by people taking responsibility for themselves instead of being passive consumers coddled by the corporate welfare state.
In a twist in the usual sci-fi formula, the machines in “Wall-E” don’t turn on man, but liberate man from enslavement to ... machines. Paradoxically, then, Pixar’s techno-whiz-bang fable is a whimsical but full-frontal attack on modernity. Philosophical modernity begins, in part, with Francis Bacon, the 17th-century philosopher of science who declared that the proper end of politics is “the conquest of nature for the relief of man’s estate.”
But as the older Aristotelian tradition contends, nature is to be husbanded, not conquered. Man is embedded within nature and cannot know himself outside its laws and logic. Human nature withers without struggle, without cultivation, without companionship, without community.
“Wall-E” opens up the discerning viewer’s imagination, inviting him to consider what authentic personal and communal human goods we have lost as we’ve gained prosperity and mastery over nature_and how we might get them back.
“Wall-E” is the kind of movie that presents planting a garden as a revolutionary act. One way or another, we’re all living on the Axiom. “Wall-E” is a call to wake up, stand up and abandon ship.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Rod Dreher is a Dallas Morning News editorial columnist.