Friday, July 4, 2008

WALL•E: A post-Fascist Utopia

I just watched WALL•E yesterday, and today I have been reading everything I could find on the internet about the movie. I've been watching video clips from the movie on the Apple site and also on WALL•E's own Disney website.

Other Reviews of WALL•E

I read the Wikipedia piece about the movie which I thought was excellent. As usual the movie articles on Wikipedia are highly in depth and profound. It's really quite amazing that they are able to maintain such a high degree of excellence in the area of movie reviews.

Movies are IMO the highest form of popular art of our late 20th century and early 21st century consumer culture. They are the modern equivalent of the Greek play and Hollywood is the maximum exponent of this artform - if not in an artistic sense then at least in terms of technical mastery, and also of course in terms of the shear popularity which Hollywood movies enjoy on a global scale.

WALL•E is currently the number one rated movie and is destined to follow in the footsteps of other great Disney movies that have become cultural icons - movies like Lion King, Pirates of the Carribean, and Toy Story. WALL•E is of course a Pixar production like Toy Story, and Pixar is the crème de la crème of animation studios.

After reading many reviews of WALL•E I felt they missed the point, and so I decided to write my own review. Just a warning that I will need to discuss the story in some detail, so if you haven't seen the movie yet I recommend seeing it and then coming back to read my review.

My review of WALL•E

WALL•E is a robot that has spent the last 700 years cleaning up trash on the planet Earth. The humans have left Earth and gone to live in space waiting for their home planet to become inhabitable again. WALL•E is a Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class unit. He is a small mobile autonomous robot designed to collect trash, compact it, and place it in giant high-rise garbage heaps.

At the beginning of the movie we are transported to WALL•E's world where there are no signs of life - even the other automated units have all failed. The only ones left are WALL•E and his pet cockroach.

The audience is not told what happened to produce this man-made disaster, but WALL•E's companion perhaps provides a clue. This is the first clue that has been missed by the hordes of reviewers. Cockroaches and robots have one thing in common. They are both capable of surviving in a highly radioactive environment where any other living thing would perish.

So the implication is that the planet's death is caused not just by the sheer quantity of accumulated waste, but by its radioactive nature which has poisoned the planet and rendered it incapable of sustaining life. If this is true then the film is not just a warning about an ecological disaster caused by a non-sustainable lifestyle, but also a warning about the dangers of nuclear power.

This reminds me of the disaster at Chernobyl where the radiation levels were so high that the cleanup had to be handled by robots - perhaps WALL•E's distant cousins.

WALL•E as a form of Artificial Life

But the really interesting thing about WALL•E is that he has evolved. Over the course of 700 years he has through some mutation (perhaps caused by the very radioactive environment in which he exists) become conscious. It is conceivable that some stray radiation has altered some of the bits in his memory where his program is stored and that this has rendered him adaptable to his environment. He has become a self-learning automaton. He can learn from his environment and his experiences, and he has acquired the instinct of self preservation. He has even acquired the capability of self-repairing, as is demonstrated in a scene where one of his eyes has been damaged.

While all the other WALL•E's have fallen into disrepair, he alone has survived. As a side effect of becoming aware and intelligent he has developed feelings and emotions that guide him in his actions. I have long felt that there can be no intelligence without emotions. And as a consequence of emotions, he has formed a personality. And he has developed a sense of wonder about the world. The same curiosity about the world around him that we see in a young child or a kitten at play. 

And even more than this. He feels lonely and imagines what it would be like to have a companion. Imagination is perhaps the ultimate form of intelligence. It is what most distinguishes humans from other intelligent beings on earth. It is the ability to create a whole new world in our minds and in so doing, gives us the ability to make this perception a reality.

WALL•E is searching for a higher truth. He is looking for something to make his world complete. He watches a video of an old broadway musical and sees the protagonists holding hands. Without ever having met a real human, he feels some empathy for these characters. He strives to imitate their actions - learning to dance and using props. WALL•E is lonely and looking for a mate.

Along comes EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator), searching for the Garden of Eden. But I have gotten ahead of myself.

WALL•E as Everyman

WALL•E works on another level. He is after all the one that takes out the trash - the lowest of the low. He is a sort of Everyman - an unlikely hero. His daily life consists of the most menial task imaginable. And yet from his mundane existence he is able to extract some satisfaction from the odd assortment of junk that he encounters. So too, does the average man toiling in his everyday work world search for amusements to keep him motivated. And here is the reason that we at once can sympathize with this simple character.

For a child, I would imagine the connection to be much more visceral. Here is the essence of childhood: Exploring the world around you through play, and at the same time being low man on the totem pole of life.

Once WALL•E gets to the spaceship, his intelligence becomes for him an advantage over the ship's robots. While they have superior hardware, they are not programmed to think for themselves. They are nothing but highly sophisticated automatons - hardly more intelligent than a toaster. They cannot adapt to the changing situations the way WALL•E can. But again I get ahead of myself.

When WALL•E meets EVE, it's love at first sight. EVE however is not ready for this and constantly rebuffs him. She has come to Earth searching for signs of plant life - like the dove that is sent from Noah's Ark to search for land and returns with an olive branch. This was the sign that the flood had receded, and in the case of EVE isthe sign that life has returned to Earth.

Again the timescale of 700 years gives us an indication that the cause of the ecological disaster was radiation. Radioactive materials decay exponentially according to their half-lives. Some fission byproducts like plutonium-239 have half-lives of tens of thousands of years. The situation is actually worse than this first implies, because it takes about 10 half-lives for a radioactive material to reach safe levels. That means plutonium-239 waste remains hazardous for hundreds of thousands of years. So in this sense perhaps the movie is being overly optimistic. A nuclear contaminated Earth might be unsafe for human return for much longer than 700 years.

When EVE leaves Earth, we discover where the humans have gone. WALL•E hitches a ride on the spaceship that returns EVE to the mothership called Axiom. It is a kind of space cruise ship, where the crew consists entirely of robots. The humans float around in what look like deck chairs and have slowly devolved to look more and more like whales in the microgravity.

WALL•E emerges as a sort of savior. He alone in his isolation has rediscovered and nurtured the ideal of independent thought. He is like the Arabs which preserved the Greek ideals during Medieval Times in Europe. Once these ideas were returned to Europe, they sparked a Renaisance. So too WALL•E, the Everyman, sparks the Captain of the Axiom into digging back into the history of Earth and awakens the sleeping longing for freedom.

A post-Fascist utopia

On board the Axiom we discover the sequence of events that led to the evacuation of the planet Earth. In the past, one large megacorporation has gained control of all business and government on the planet. This is what I refer to as a post Fascist utopia. The human population is so distracted by consumerism that they never notice that they have been stripped of all their freedoms and are now dominated by the the BnL megacorporation.

BnL which is short for "Buy 'n Large" is a take on the English expression "by and large". As in, "By and large, Americans enjoy Disney films." This expression means "for the most part" but can be taken to mean "universally". The expression has an interesting nautical origin. It refers to being able to sail in any direction whether into the wind (by) or with the wind (large). But besides that, it has an obvious reference in the movie to addictive consumer buying habits. It also can be thought of as referring to the super-size phenomenon. In another sense, it also refers to the "bigger is better" philosophy of American industry.

So why do I call this a post-Fascist utopia? Well, if you are familiar with communist doctrine then you will know that the communist state is supposed to be a temporary condition. According to this theory, communism produces a "new man" which then creates a new egalitarian society. This was used to justify the harsh totalitarian extremes of Stalinism and Maoism.

A curious example is modern day China, which consists of an odd mixture of totalitarianism and consumerism. Any hint of a communist ideal leading to an egalitarian worker's state has been dropped. Chinese society presents us with the closest analogy in our modern world to the society of the Axiom. 

An "axiom" is a truth that is so fundamental that it cannot be proved or disproved. It must be taken on faith as a basic assumption. All other known truths are built up upon these axioms. An axiom cannot be questioned or challenged. And so the passengers aboard the Axiom never question their lives or their existence, until the Captain one day declares, "I don't want to survive, I want to live!" This reminds me of the battle cry of the American patriot Patrick Henry: "Give me Liberty, or give me Death!"

The current US is in imminent danger of following the Chinese model. More and more the freedoms and principles upon which this country were built are being abandoned in favor of a safe and comfortable existence. In the post 9/11 world, security trumps freedom. At the same time the privatization of government means the boundary between government and business is disappearing. The ultimate result is the mega-corporate-government entity represented by BnL.

Under Fascism the corporations rule by brute force, imposing severe punishments on anyone that defies their power. But in the post-Fascist society envisioned on the Axiom, the people are so engaged in mundane pleasures that they are unaware that they are being dominated and manipulated by an all-powerful corporate Police State. As long is there is no dissent there is no need for repression, but the BnL apparatus is nonetheless ever vigilant. And when a "rogue robot" appears on the scene the full force of the Police State is set in motion.

America today is in danger of slipping into just such a post-Fascist state. Americans civil liberties are being eroded while the American People are distracted by a constant stream of mindless entertainment. The Police State is becoming ever more powerful, while individual rights are weakened through legislation and court rulings. At some point the American People must decide whether they are willing to give up their Inalienable Rights in exchange for a comfortable existence without freedom.

WALL•E as a love story

WALL•E also functions as a love story. The romantic couple in this case are two robots. At first it is WALL•E pursuing the lovely EVE who rebuffs his every advance. But at the end of the story the roles are reversed. It is EVE who tries to romance WALL•E, and WALL•E who rebuffs her.

Which raises an interesting question: What happened to EVE? How was she transformed from a cold and heartless machine into a warm and loving being. Perhaps her software was so sophisticated that it was capable of learning from WALL•E about the nature of love. Or perhaps we can think of WALL•E as containing a kind of computer virus which infected EVE. 

In the end it is a "kiss" from EVE that causes a spark of life in WALL•E. It is like the hand of God touching Adam in the painting of the Creation by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel. And then there was life.

WALL•E as an homage to movies of the past

The movie WALL•E is in part an homage to movies of the past. In the sci-fi genre, the most obvious example is the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey". From the red eye of the Auto pilot to the use of the "Also sprach Zarathustra" theme, WALL•E is full of references to this 1968 classic. The scene where WALL•E is set adrift in a pod is right out of the 2001 script, except that in this case WALL•E survives. The scene where WALL•E first travels into space reminds me of the psychedelic scene in 2001 where astronaut Dave Bowman is transported through a worm hole.

WALL•E also pays homage to the silent film through its very limited use of dialogue. The movie relies on pantomine instead. One can think of WALL•E as being a modern day Charlie Chaplin, the Little Tramp. Like Chaplin in Modern Times, WALL•E is a comic criticism of our own contemporary society, and a warning of the fate that awaits us if we become too complacent.


Mark Blankenship said...

Thanks for your post at my site, and thanks for letting me know about your review. I think you make a really good argument about the post-fascist state and the "Axiom" as the manifestation of a police-state axiom.

I hadn't thought about it that way, but I absolutely see your point.

Frank Hope said...

Mark's review titled "Is Wall*E Jesus?" can be found at:

I highly recommend reading it. The idea of Walle as Jesus had not occurred to me when I was writing my review, but it is a very interesting one. The more I think about the film, the more I am drawn towards this interpretation. The most compelling idea for me is that WALL•E is resurrected. And in fact the whole Earth is resurrected after 700 years.

I also recommend the following review that hits on tthe same theme.
"The Gospel According to Wall-E"

True art is open to interpretation in many ways. WALL•E certainly fits that criteria.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the review in its principle arguments, only after reading it i was left wondering why the post facist battle between good and evil had to be fought robot to robot. Isn't it true that it's humanity that created the unlivable mess that is earth? Even though the humans aboard the spaceship have lived their lives in ignorance, i find it hard to believe that they would all decide to return to a hard life on a ruined planet at the behest of a single robot. My main qualm with the movie is taking a human struggle and putting it in robots' hands. I think the movie would have been more legitimate had the antagonist been not a robot, but the powerful human laziness and stupidity which is currently gripping our world.

AmericanGoy said...

Frank, baby...


I enjoyed every word.

"I have long felt that there can be no intelligence without emotions."
Sadly, you are wrong on this one, as an AI led society is surely in humanity's future.

Frank, you should just use DIGG to shamelessly promote your blog.

This article, for one, was simply brilliant.