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, the charm of this story managed to obscure Wall-E’s preachy and hypocritical PC message. While castigating America for corporate greed and mindless consumerism, Disney-Pixar Studios created its own pile of useless junk by distributing cereal-box quality Wall-E wristwatches to children viewing the film.

But that’s not what caused my negative response to Wall-E. After all, I’ve endured lots of Hollywood-soapbox movies without apparent ill effects. Only after brooding for a week did I finally figure out why Wall-E bummed me out.

Green Jobs & Pizza Plants

I doubt Wall-E’s producers realized it, but they created a cynical metaphor for the U.S. utility industry.

Like Buy n Large, regulated utilities in most states make money building and operating as much infrastructure as the economy’s insatiable appetite can afford. The billing cycle is designed in a way that discourages any thought of conservation, or even price sensitivity. Rather, it encourages a huge peak demand, requiring massive extra capacity in the rate base. The regulatory structure protects the utility franchise, marginalizing competition or forbidding it outright.

Like Buy n Large, the utility industry is blamed for global environmental problems. And like Buy n Large, the industry hopes to solve these problems with grandiose technology. But instead of a robot army, carbon capture & sequestering technology promises a tidy solution to climate change, without forcing major changes in the way we produce or sell electricity. And in the worst-case scenario, a privileged few will be safe inside a nuclear-powered, air-conditioned cocoon, while the rest of the world either burns or drowns in rising seas.

A harsh assessment, I know—but maybe it’s not far off. This is why Wall-E bummed me out.

At the end of Wall-E, when the spaceship actually lands on Earth and the captain and passengers toddle out, the captain jovially tells some dazed-looking children, “You guys will grow all kinds of food: corn plants, tomato plants, pizza plants!” … (or something to that effect.)

On the surface, this seems like a hopeful ending to a fairly grim movie. But in fact it’s not hopeful at all; the idea of these human weebles rebuilding civilization is as absurd as the idea of plants sprouting pizza. The moral of the story: We humans are too far gone to recover from the disaster we’ve wrought.

I hope that’s not true, but when I hear politicians talk about conservation, renewable energy and “green jobs,” it sounds like naïve promises. Sure, renewable energy and conservation industries are creating jobs, but those numbers are puny compared to the number of jobs eliminated by spiraling energy costs and shrinking manufacturing industries. And sure, a smarter power grid can bring tremendous benefits from distributed resources—both demand and supply. But consumers can’t curtail their appetite for energy. They don’t know how, and they won’t even try as long as the Buy n Large utility construct continues feeding them as it always has.

This industry faces difficult times ahead. Fortunately, there’s a big difference between our world and Wall-E’s world. Namely, our disaster hasn’t happened yet. Unlike Buy n Large, our companies and policymakers are seriously talking about the perverse incentives that encourage overbuilding and overconsumption, and everybody’s focused on carbon constraints and strategies for dealing with them. Smart grid and advanced metering technologies are the hottest products in the industry today. We’re honestly trying to prevent the catastrophe.

At least I think we are. I really hope I’m not being naïve, waiting for pizza plants to grow.