Crunchy Con

"Wall-E": Aristotelian, crunchy con


Saturday July 5, 2008

Categories: Conservatism, Culture

Took the kids to see "Wall-E" the other night. I expected a quality kid's movie (this is Pixar, which sets the standard in these matters), and that I certainly got, though my eight year old enjoyed it much more than my four year old, I sense. What I didn't expect, what I wouldn't in a million years have expected, is a Pixar film that embodies a traditionalist conservative critique of modernity, one that advocates a more or less Aristotelian view of humanity and politics. Philosophically, this is one of the most subversive movies I've ever seen. Crunchy cons, this movie is for us.

I'm going to talk about it in detail after the jump. If you want to avoid spoilers, don't read on. But I hope you will read on, because this movie is really, really smart, and I find myself deeply irritated (but not, alas, surprised) at the conservative viewers who see in it nothing more than "propaganda" for the environment. "Wall-E" is galaxies more sophisticated than that, and the message is one that is ultimately conservative, though the kind of conservatism I espouse in "Crunchy Cons," not the kind dominating the mainstream today (and for that matter, if you're the kind of liberal who likes reading this blog for positive reasons, as opposed to getting laffs from the crackhead conservatism on display, you're going to love "Wall-E" too). Anyway, I do hope you'll read on...

The film's title character is a grungy little garbage robot, Wall-E, whose job it is to collect and compact trash left over by humans, who abandoned earth 700 years ago after it got too polluted to inhabit. Humanity is living in deep space, aboard a vast luxury liner called The Axiom, and exists with the idea that after the clean-up of earth is complete, they can return to re-inhabit it. But the clean-up, which was supposed to last five years, is now into its eighth century, and is no where near completion. This, as we see, is not a problem for the humans (I'm jumbling up the order of storytelling here, but what I want to do is focus on the philosophical meaning of the film, so bear with me).

Wall-E goes about his Sisyphean task on an earth devoid of any sign of life, comforting himself by collecting tchotchkes he finds in the garbage. What's interesting about this is that while he's programmed not to differentiate among the trash, he has somehow developed the consciousness to find "treasures" in the trash, and he uses them to give his little cave dwelling a sense of humanity amid the bleakness of his landscape. One day, a giant spaceship lands and deposits Eve, a sleek probe robot whose job it is (as we discover) to find a sign of organic life on earth. She's like the dove sent out by Noah from the ark. If Eve can find a sign of organic life, that will be the signal to humanity on the Axiom that Earth can once again support life.

Wall-E instantly falls in love with Eve, even though she's a pretty fearsome lady. She possesses awesome firepower, and she considers anything strange to be a threat, and blasts it to kingdom come. But he eventually wins her trust, and he gives her as a gift a green sprout he's discovered under a trashpile. She takes it into her body (so to speak), then goes dormant. What we later learn is that she is fulfilling her programming directive: to take life to the captain of the Axiom. Devoted Wall-E stands by her side, even though she's basically comatose, and eventually stows away for the journey back to the Axiom.

The Axiom is a visual wonder. It's like a giant hotel in space. Every possible need of its inhabitants is taken care of by high technology. They're all monstrously fat, and have forgotten how to walk, which doesn't matter because they're all carried around on floating chairs anyway. They are constantly entertained, and fed by junk food. And they all look happy. They have been thoroughly infantilized -- they look like overgrown babies -- and have grown completely dependent on the BNL Corporation, the massive company that, it appears, became the government back on Earth, and whose priorities -- sell crap to consumers, and make them totally dependent on their own desires -- led to the catastrophe on Earth. BNL is totalitarian, but it's the softest totalitarianism imaginable: they've taken over by fulfilling every desire of the populace, a populace that (apparently) came to think of politics as chiefly a matter of ordering the polis around the telos of satisfying human desires.

Mind you, this is a kid's movie.

The captain is a likable slug whose job consists of waking up, eating, checking with the autopilot (Otto, this movie's nod to 2001's HAL) to make sure everything is fine, then relaxing. You see on the wall in a group of photos of his predecessors how with each successive generation, the humans grew fatter and fatter. The implication, in terms of this movie, is not so much that they grew lazier (though they did) but that they lost contact with their own humanity.

Technology emerges as a villain here -- but it's a complicated villain, as I'll explain. Technology allowed for the development of the consumer economy, and the creation of the fantastic spaceship that allowed humanity to escape an earth it despoiled with technology. But technology also shaped the consciousness of the humans. It led them to break with nature (Nature), and to think of technology as something that delivered them from nature. 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, versus organic and natural (the grotty little Wall-E robot is an instructive contrast with the sleek, ultraclean robots on the Axiom). Consequently, they've become slaves of both technology and their own base appetites, and have lost what makes them human. They can't even talk naturally to each other. Two people lying on lounges next to each other communicate via computer. People on the Axiom live their days moving around from mindless entertainment to mindless entertainment. They are the perfect consumers.

And their children -- there's a brief scene in which little kids are receiving primary education on the Axiom. Their first lesson is: The Axiom is our home. Their second lesson: the BNL Corp. is our friend (this is not far from reality: corporations have long been working to "brand" children; see here and here). Note well that the children are no longer being taught that Earth is our home. Rather, the home we live in is that environment created for us and sustained for us by the megacorporation that governs us.

In the end, the robots -- meaning the system -- who run the Axiom see the presence of Earthly life among them (the sprig of a plant Eve has brought back) as a threat to their existence. We discover that the head of BNL had sent a prime directive secretly to Otto, telling him that returning to Earth is impossible, the place is too ruined, and if people should decide to go back there, he -- Otto -- wasn't to let them. In a neat inversion of Genesis, the robot Eve is now bearing an "apple" -- a temptation to the people to defy the prime directive of their false God, and to become human once again by choosing life, not mere existence.

In another twist on the Genesis story, "Wall-E" contends that what makes us human is labor. In the film's most meaningful iconic image, the Tree of Life on the new earth grows out of an old work boot. You'll recall that when Adam and Eve were cast out of Eden, Adam was cursed for his sin by being condemned to draw his sustenance from the very Earth from which he was drawn. God says to Adam, "In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return." (Gen. 3:19) In "Wall-E," humanity discovers that it can only complete its own given nature through labor -- first agricultural labor, then the labor of building cities. You have to sit through the brilliant end credits to watch the future of civilization on Earth after the final scene of the film. You see that people renew the face of the Earth through their own labor, and by taking responsibility for themselves, instead of being passive consumers, wards of the corporate state.

What I found especially interesting about this epilogue is how it showed the robots from the Axiom helping humans rebuild civilization. See, "Wall-E" is not a Luddite film. It doesn't demonize technology. It only argues that technology is properly used to help humans cultivate their true nature -- that it must be subordinate to human flourishing, and help move that along. Where humanity got into trouble was allowing technology to exacerbate its own internal disorder -- to alienate people from their labor, from each other, and ultimately from themselves. The film is wise enough to know that we can't go back to a pre-technology state, so it says the best thing to do is to put technology in its proper place -- which we can only do when our own souls and communities are rightly ordered.

"Wall-E" says that humans have within themselves the freedom to rebel, to overthrow that which dominates and alienates us from our true selves, and our own nature. But you have to question the prime directive; that is, you have to become conscious of how they way you're living is destroying your body and killing your soul, and choose to resist. "Wall-E" contends that real life is hard, real life is struggle, and that we live most meaningfully not by avoiding pain and struggle, but by engaging it creatively, and sharing that struggle in community. It argues that rampant consumerism, technopoly and the exaltation of comfort is causing us to weaken our souls and bodies, and sell out our birthright of political freedom. Nobody is doing this to us; we're doing it to ourselves. It is the endgame of modernity, which began in part with the idea that Nature is the enemy to be subdued -- that man stands outside of Nature, and has nothing to learn about himself from Nature's deep logic.

If Wendell Berry made a sci-fi movie for kids, it would be "Wall-E." I'm very eager to hear what the rest of you have to say about it. I notice Julie and I are already starting to critique our own daily behavior and choices by saying, "That's like on the Axiom." Saying, "We're on the Axiom!" is our way of taking note of our own mindless consumerism.

Larissa B.
July 30, 2009 9:44 PM

Excellent analysis of an excellent movie.

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About Crunchy Con

Rod Dreher is an editorial columnist for the Dallas Morning News, and author of "Crunchy Cons" (Crown Forum), a nonfiction book about conservatives, most of them religious, whose faith and political convictions sometimes put them at odds with mainstream conservatives. The views expressed in this blog are his own.

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