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Why I Hated Wall-E

Hollywood envisions the utility of the future.

Fortnightly Magazine - August 2008

One of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters this summer has been Wall-E—Disney-Pixar’s animated movie about a lovable robot who restores humanity’s place on a trashed Earth.

Reviewers have heaped acclaim on the film. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times, for example, gushed with superlatives: “an enthralling animated film, a visual wonderment … astonishing.” New media reviewers loved it too, variously declaring it a “masterpiece” and an “instant classic.” A poll on IMDb—the Internet Movie Database —currently ranks Wall-E among the 20 best movies of all time.

I was surprised, therefore, when I walked out of this movie feeling like a black cloud was hanging over my head.

At first I shrugged off this feeling. After all, it’s just a cartoon, right? But the feeling continued nagging at me, and eventually I figured out why.

Call me a utility industry geek, but I think Wall-E can be seen as a metaphor for the industry’s current set of dilemmas and challenges. And viewed that way, Wall-E’s message isn’t hopeful. It’s a message of despair.

Wall-E World

Analyzing Wall-E requires explaining the plot, so if you haven’t seen the film, be forewarned: spoilers ahead.

In Wall-E’s world, humanity’s excesses have rendered the planet unlivable. Rampant consumerism—blamed mostly on a single mega-corporation, Buy n Large ( www.buynlarge.com)—has buried the land in garbage. Industrial waste has polluted the air and water. The ocean has turned into black slop. Wall-E’s title character is the last member of a fleet of mobile trash compactors, unleashed to tidy up the planet while what remains of the human race takes an off-world vacation in a huge spaceship/cruise liner.

In the second act, we learn the cleanup mission has failed. Earth’s environment has been poisoned beyond the ability to support life. A few years into the space-spa’s launch, the return voyage was canceled—turning vacation into permanent lifestyle. On the spaceship, robots attend to humanity’s every need. Nobody walks or even stands up anymore. Instead they spend their lives reclining in hover cars, shuttling from one leisure “activity” to another, consuming a constant stream of food and entertainment. A series of x-ray images reveals that after generations of this existence, humans have evolved away most of their skeletal structure to become bulbous, helpless, adult-sized babies—oblivious to their pathetic state.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, the robots have continued their hopeless cleanup mission, compacting mountains of trash into cubes and stacking them neatly into skyscraper-sized towers. Over the course of 700 years, all but one of the robots— Wall-E—has fallen into disrepair. He’s persevered by rebuilding himself from the parts of his broken-down kin—along the way becoming self aware, compassionate and inexplicably fixated on the film Hello Dolly .

This grimly comic scenario made Wall-E a darker film than its marketing might suggest. This is probably because the story line centers on Wall-E’s yearning to hold hands, like in Hello Dolly, with a sleek, high-tech robot called EVE.

For many viewers,

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