An ecophile’s take on the Pixar parable Wall-E

Just one weed separates the humans from the machines

By Tobin Hack


They say that if you want to prepare for parenthood, or just grow up a little, you should get yourself a houseplant. If that goes well, maybe you graduate to a Labrador retriever or parakeet, and then—hooray!—on to full fledged adulthood. It’s at our best that we humans set ourselves apart in the world by tending the lives around us.

Which brings me to Wall-E, the latest Disney Pixar project to grace the big screen, and whose plot revolves around the last living plant on a destroyed Earth. The flora in question is a single, generic, mangy sprout. And yet for the remainder of the human race, now living in space on the Axiom luxury “starliner”, the little plant is more than the genetic key to restoring Earth. It’s the first wobbly step toward regaining humanity and adulthood after 700 years of infantile space living.

Axiom residents aren’t literally children: They’re morbidly obese blobs who spend their monotonous days zooming heavily around on hovering easy chairs, watching private TV screens, and drinking meals-in-a-cup. They can’t walk, and have even forgotten how to interact physically with one another, raising the question of how they’ve been procreating for the past few centuries. Machines take charge of their every need to the point (possibly) of no return.

Meanwhile, back on earth, a fleet of compactor robots is supposedly carrying out “operation cleanup,” which consists of smashing garbage together in cubes and stacking it to build trash-skyscrapers. Drearily, all but one—our very own gurgling, curious, beat-up, trinket-collecting Wall-E—have long since broken down.  So when the Axioms 200.0 iPodesque probes are occasionally sent down to root out life on Earth, they return to the humans’ auto-piloted world empty handed.

Lucky for the human race, we’ll always do one thing better than robots: appreciate the inherent value of a living plant. Although it’s Wall-E who discovers the weed during one of his rummaging excursions, and Eve who ruthlessly carries out her “directive” to deliver it to the humans on Axiom, neither robot finds it a work of beauty. Wall-E plucks it from the piles of rubbish with the same curiosity he shows pulling out a dingy old bra (which he tries to wear as sunglasses), or a diamond engagement ring (he keeps the flip-top case but chucks the ring). Had he not fallen in love with Earth-probe Eve and tried to impress her with his treasure trove of trinkets, he might have forgotten about the plant entirely. But when a Rubiks Cube and other charms fail to impress her in the game of show-and-tell he stages, Wall-E brings out the plant. Eve’s reaction is mechanical—as with every object she tests on Earth, she scans it with a detective laser to determine its identity.

But when Wall-E and Eve embark on a star-lit adventure and co-deliver the plant to Axiom’s captain, he reacts with pure awe. Later, unaware of himself, he begins babbling as though it’s a child, using “poor you” language, calling it “little guy,” and praising it for not giving up (on life, we presume). It’s arguably one of the more tender moments in the movie—right up there with Wall-E stringing an unresponsive Eve with Christmas lights, settling in at her side, and trying to hold her hand as they watch the toxic sunset.

The Captain’s new fatherly tone only becomes more pronounced when he and his fellow space travelers land back home on Earth. “This is called farming!” he tells everyone, as he shows them how to plant seeds. “You kids are gonna grow all sorts of things! Vegetable plants, pizza plants… it’s good to be home!”

Back on Axiom, it was all the Captain could to do to get up in the morning (roused, clothed, groomed and fed by machines, of course), and read the day’s news (there never was any) from a robot-written script. Here on Earth, he’s a caretaker immediately, a father, a leader, a hero. A hero who thinks pizza grows on trees, perhaps, but a hero nonetheless.

So will we, so dangerously close to Axiom fate, take the moral of this adorable Pixar parable to heart? Will we resist the urge, upon leaving the AMC mega complex theaters where we paid $14.50 to see the movie, to log into our personal laptops and play twenty consecutive rounds of Wall-E, the video game (it does exist, in all its ironic glory)? Or will we head outdoors and plant something? Will we—in the immortal words of Dr Seuss, “treat it with care, give it clean water, and feed it fresh air”?

The IBDM plot summary for Wall-E begins, matter-of-factly, “In a distant, but not so unrealistic future…” It’s true: The sterile Axiom lifestyle is just what more and more Americans seem to be aiming for. We want our own hulking car, our perfect little world complete with TV set, Ipod, cup holders, and an endless supply of empty liquid calories. We want our home movie theater with huge stereo speakers and screen to match. But the real revelation of the movie is not that we could wind up like Axiom inhabitants. It’s that no one—not even the most emotive little robot ever to hit the big screen—can cherish our Earth the way we can.

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