In a twist of irony, earlier this week I was looking through my house for something and stumbled instead upon an old notebook of mine from University of Michigan that I kept. It was my film journal from a course I took on “Future Visions” consisting of a series of science-fiction films we had to study and write about. I spent some time reading through it all, and found it to be ample preparation for seeing WALL-E this weekend. I just didn’t know at the time there would be a connection.
In particular, the main theme that I had deduced from many of the films in the course was the idea that mankind seems to evolve both in mind and in body. In body, we have evolved up to a certain point and stopped, but our minds keep evolving, and as a result, we develop technology that allows us to do so. But over and over again we transcend our limitations only up to a point and bounce right back to where we came, and we regress into the past, or into a realization of the need for love & community. I had noticed this idea pan out over many films, in particular Things to Come, Blade Runner, Solaris, Altered States (which wasn’t part of the course but it could have been), and 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The film Things to Come (1936) represents a futuristic society whose attire and architecture has regressed back to days of ancient Rome. People dress in togas and artists build giant columns and statues, all in the name of “progress” which is ironically “re”gressing back to a more primitive state, as if starting all over again. Blade Runner (1982) is a post-modern masterpiece which is set in the future, but has elements of 1930s film noir, regressing back to the lighting and atmosphere of the classic “dame with a case” stories. In the original film version of the film Solaris (1972), the lead character Kelvin’s journey to the stars ends with a rendition of the prodigal son, where he encounters his father on a deserted island and returns to his arms in forgiveness. Altered States (1980) is about William Hurt’s character Dr. Jessup, who becomes obsessed with scientific experiments that regress him back to an early ape-like version of man, and ultimately to the terrifying spark of the beginning of life itself, only to be overcome by admitting his love for his wife. And finally, in 2001, Dave the Spaceman shuts down the dehumanizing HAL and proceeds through the planet Jupiter, experiencing death and rebirth.
This brings us to the brilliant fable WALL-E, an animated film that has the maturity to stand amongst these classic tales of science-fiction and give its own spin upon this recurrent theme. By leaving Earth and traveling into the far reaches of space and taking the most advanced technology imaginable along with them, mankind does not progress, but rather regresses. The far reaches of their mind’s evolution has been transferred into the technology they have created, to the point that their humanity as even been transferred more into their machines than in themselves. The ability to love and empathize is apparent in the robots WALL-E and EVE, and the ability to dominate and deceive is apparent in the “steering wheel” computer driving the ship. (The red-eye is an obvious nod to HAL from 2001.) Due to the vacuum of space and the over-reliance on technology, mankind has regressed into big spoiled babies. The hovercrafts they travel around in were specifically designed only for the elderly, but eventually the system they created overtook them and they all succumbed to being isolated in their own electronic wombs.
In the case of the ship’s captain, he realizes he must reject the system and literally learn to stand on his own two feet. In taking his awkward steps without his chair, he is being symbolically re-born. Thus the familiar Also Sprach Zarathustra music from 2001 plays, as another obvious nod to the film, as the captain “shuts down HAL” and moves himself and civilization towards a new Earth.
Beyond the film itself and into the ending credits, the filmmakers emphasize the regression back to starting life anew through an animated journey through art history, as the re-cultivation of the planet is visually represented in the style of cave paintings, Egyptian hieroglyphs, Greek vases, impressionist painting, and finally, 80s-style video games! As the old man in Labyrinth tells us, “The way forward is sometimes the way back” and Jesus tells us in John 3:3 “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” It is symbolically a re-birth of how we live, how we use our minds, our use of technology, and our commitment to love one another and care for God’s creation that truly allows us to live as we should.
The film itself is like a poem, an ironic twist that robots would ultimately have more empathy and emotion than their creators. WALL-E himself is a remnant of the old earth, left behind and discarded. Being alone on the old earth, he is like the first Adam, lonely and in need of relationship. EVE and the ship she comes from are products of this new slick ‘re-birth’ that people tried to create for themselves. This new world is one of an elite sense, one that has robbed people of their humanity and even discards “rouge robots” that are defective and keeps them separate, like a caste system that throws away outcasts.
WALL-E starts by gaining the attraction of EVE, and then once on the ship he begins having an effect on everyone he encounters, like having a Midas touch that opens their eyes to a different reality, one that has been there all along but they didn’t realize it. He causes humans John and Mary to discover each other, the stars, and their surroundings. He helps the robot guard discover a little waving hand movement he never knew he had. He also tears down the walls that keep all of the outcast robots away from society. Once they are free, they realize that they too have a purpose, as they help with the chase to start the journey home.
WALL-E does all of this simply by being himself, and he represents the kind of new birth that God desires in us…not a new utopian birth brought on by technology that gives immediate comfort, but one where relationships with each other open our eyes up to the world around us. Not one where our only connection to each other is through computer screens and virtual reality, but one where we can see each other, touch each other, and hold each others’ hands.