Ivy Allie

Wall-E was a weird movie

Posted 16 Oct 2021

At the time Wall-E was released, I knew at least one person who named it the greatest film of all time. That seemed a little hyperbolic to me, but I was in agreement that the film was very good, and above average for Pixar, which back then actually meant something. But there were elements of it which bothered me from the beginning. Most significantly, I found the gaggle of broken robots annoying and I thought it was something of a plot hole that the Axiom continued sending out probes even after their mission was canceled. On this rewatch, though, I found that both of these problems are actually directly tied to the film’s central thesis, which is that deviance is a moral good.

I will elaborate. Superficially Wall-E appears to be a message about mindless consumerism and the environmental toll thereof, but this is actually a tangential aspect of its more consistent pro-disobedience message. Like The Iron Giant (a known influence at Pixar), the film is greatly concerned with the self-determination of its robot protagonists, and universally depicts a robot’s decision to disregard its assigned “directives” as inherently good. Conversely, the robots which adhere to their objectives are on a spectrum that ranges from pathetic to evil.

Obviously the most significant example is Wall-E himself. Though he has been diligently carrying out his directive for centuries, he has also developed significant character traits that are clearly not in line with his mission, and appears to have found robot happiness by doing so. And his life gets better still when he abandons them completely.

Eve’s directive, which is central to the plot, might seem to be an exception, but in fact it is consistent with this theme as well. The most significant moment in Eve’s arc is the scene in which she explicitly casts aside her directive–but only for a moment, because Wall-E reminds her that completing her mission is the only way to save him. So she does follow her directive for the rest of the film, but only because she now values its outcome, as opposed to the act of fulfilling it.

Meanwhile, we have characters like MO the cleaning robot, the Stewards, and AUTO the autopilot. MO enters the film with two directives: clean stuff and stay on the line. In his first scene he is basically antagonistic as he belligerently adheres to his assigned functions and is increasingly frustrated with Wall-E for disrupting his routine. At the end of his first scene he decides that staying on the line is no longer a directive worth following, because he wants to pursue the cleaning objective with singleminded zeal. As long as he continues to do so, he functions essentially as comic relief, and only when his task is complete is he graduated to full-fledged ally of the protagonists.

The Stewards and AUTO, however, never disregard their directives and thus become the primary villains of the film. The Stewards are basically police officers (RoboCops, if you will), presumably with the same degree of sapience enjoyed by the other robots of the film, but their unwillingness to disregard orders ultimately leads to a scene in which they get smashed to pieces by our protagonists. The same goes for AUTO: he is adamant about following his directives, and thus must die.

So this is where my two old complaints come in.

First, the gaggle of broken robots that cheerfully tag alongside our heroes for the entire latter half of the film. I always found them annoying, and I couldn’t understand why I was supposed to think that their escape from the Robot Hospital was a good thing. They’re broken. They should be in the hospital until repairs can be completed. But with the film’s messaging, they’re not being healed so much as they are being brainwashed. Within the film’s ethical structure, a painting robot that paints the wrong things isn’t a broken robot, it is an artist robot, and any attempt to restore its original function is an travesty.

Second, the continuation of the probe mission despite the fact that it is no longer relevant. AUTO clearly could discontinue the probe missions at any time, but he doesn’t do so because he was never explicitly told to do so. Rather, Directive A113 is “stay the course and do not return to Earth,” which AUTO has interpreted to mean that he is to continue sending the probe missions, even though their function is not only obsolete but (from his perspective) counterproductive. Essentially, the probe mission itself is a symptom of his character flaw of blind obedience.

But let’s move beyond the robots for a moment and talk about how this theme applies to the film’s human characters. To start, I want to be clear on one point: Wall-E is an anti-humanist film. Its view of human nature is bleak and nihilistic. It depicts the entire human race as being so easily manipulated by corporate forces that they become literally mindless consumers, even after the point when capitalism as a system no longer meaningfully exists. (Clearly there’s no money changing hands on the Axiom; it’s built like a giant mall but everything appears to be provided gratis without any concentration of wealth anywhere. How could it be any other way, when none of these people are capable of earning wages? The captain is the only person with something resembling a job, and even he admits that his duties are meaningless.) The humans of Wall-E like, the robots, compulsively do whatever their Buy-N-Large overlords tell them to do, and they do not reclaim their humanity until Wall-E’s individualism exposes them to the concept of deviance. (The moral decrepitude of the humans is symbolized by their fatness and immobility, which is egregiously problematic but has been written about at length by others, so I don’t think I need to go into it here.) At the end of the film, the humans’ newfound agency leads them to send the Axiom back to Earth. This is depicted as a happy ending because they’ve slipped their bonds, but it’s hard to see an outcome of this situation that doesn’t involve a whole lot of bleached skeletons lying around. But in the world of Wall-E, deviance is automatically good. Better to disobey and die than to obey and live.

(I know the credits sequence shows human civilization slowly rebuilding itself, but I don’t buy it. Furthermore, since this film is of the opinion that human nature defaults to sloth and apathy, I don’t see how a positive outcome is possible within the film’s own universe, either.)

In highlighting all this, I’m not attempting to argue that the film is wrong, exactly. There is a place for deviance. But I find the film’s moral absolutism on the matter puzzling. In this framework, MO’s decision to drive off of the line is morally superior to AUTO’s adherence to the system that literally prevents humanity from dying. It’s an odd position to take, but it’s the only one that’s consistent throughout the film. One might think it would at least be consistently against consumerism, except that Wall-E’s primary character trait is that he constantly acquires literal garbage that he doesn’t need. When the humans acquire stuff it’s bad because someone told them to. When Wall-E acquires stuff it’s good because he was told not to. (Granted, Wall-E isn’t buying the things he collects, but then neither are the humans.) It’s bad that the planet got trashed, but it only got like that because humanity obeyed when Buy-N-Large told them to. The film is pro-deviance, full stop.

OK, now that I’ve said my piece about how Wall-E is thematically weird, I did want to say a little bit about the film itself.

The first third or so of the film is utterly brilliant. From the moment it opens to space vistas and daringly out-of-place music, it’s clear that something masterful is going on. Then, when we meet our protagonist, the film launches into an incredibly well choreographed sequence that fills in a huge amount of background information and setup with staggering efficiency. The narrative has hardly begun before we’re seamlessly taught about Buy-N-Large, Operation Cleanup, Wall-E’s ability to replace parts of himself, and the idea that a fire extinguisher can be used as a propulsion device. Among other things. And it’s all done invisibly, because the film is simultaneously engaging us with the present via Wall-E’s endearing personality and the monumental and bleak landscape.

Once Eve arrives (with the spaceship landing sequence, which is likewise fantastic), the tone of the film changes somewhat but remains impressive, especially in that it manages to convey what’s going on without any dialogue in the traditional sense.

It’s when our heroes arrive on the Axiom that the film unfortunately loses a lot of what it had going for it. Past that point it’s no longer the strange, quiet, and artful story that it had been, but instead becomes a fairly by-the-numbers MacGuffin chase. (With the fate of humanity hanging in the balance, because heaven forbid we have limited stakes.) This is not to say that it isn’t without its moments. The space dance sequence is lovely, and I’ve always loved the scene when MO decides to leave his line, regardless of its thematic significance. But there is a spark in that first act that the film does not manage to kindle again.

And, finally, the ending. Pixar is of course notorious for attempting to stab its viewers in the heart in the final act, and having Wall-E lose his personality and memory is perhaps their hardest-hitting tear induction device to date. But it only works once, because of course it’s quickly revealed to be nothing but a fake-out. Wall-E is fully restored and the day is saved, and when you know things are going to work out, it’s hard to feel much of anything during that sequence. Much more affecting and genuine is the scene in the garbage room, in which Eve’s affection for Wall-E finally overcomes her desire to fulfill her mission. In the past I was known to say that the film should have had a sad ending, with Wall-E never recovering, but in retrospect I don’t think that would have worked either. It’s already a pretty bleak film, so I don’t think ending with an extreme downer would have been beneficial to anyone. But regardless of whether Wall-E recovers or not, this last-minute tragedy feels not like a meaningful emotional climax, but more of an emotional hostage-taking: you will cry by the end of this film, dammit!

So, is Wall-E the greatest film of all time? Hell no. It’s not even the greatest Pixar film of all time. (The Incredibles, Toy Story, and maybe even Ratatouille are definitely better.) It has moments of greatness, and those moments are so great in fact that they kind of eclipse the fact that much of it is actually pretty pedestrian. Add on the weird thematic messaging, its offensive symbology, and its extremely pessimistic view of humanity and it’s not even a four-star film for me anymore. It is comfortably a three-star film: more good than bad, but with some glaring problems that weigh it down somewhat. And you can’t argue with me, because giving this film a low-ish rating is in itself an act of deviance.