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Gramsci and Foucault at the Movies: Sarah Coney

The Winners of the SIS 202 Media Center Film Paper Competition.

WALL-E – The Looming Future

WALL-E – The Looming Future

by Sarah Coney


Introduction

While Disney and Pixar movies seem to appeal towards a young age group, often times the central themes provide serious commentary about the world around us, as did 2008 released WALL-E. The film examines a multitude of western societal problems ranging from epidemic obesity to the dangers of over powerful corporations. The degradation of the natural environment takes a leading role in the film, rather unintentionally, it seems. In an interview with director Andrew Stanton, he admits that he did not mean to give the movie a strong environmental slant. The idea to make the destruction of the world come about from trash and pollution evolved from a western cultural acceptance of this idea. He stated, “’Honestly, the reason I picked trash was because it didn’t require any narration to explain” (Stanton). The fact that Stanton picked waste due to the accessibility for the audience speaks volumes about western culture. The idea that the world could be so devastated by waste and pollution that not even a plant could survive is a concept familiar in our minds, and even a future looming possibility. Though some may argue that it is a simple love story, WALL-E effectively creates a social commentary on western civilizations diminishing relationship with the environment by illustrating cultural vices, an increasing dependence on technology and a skewed view of human hegemonic power. 


Synopsis

In the most basic sense the animated film is a heart-warming love story between the two robots WALL-E and EVE. WALL-E (which stands for Waste Allocation Load Lifter - Earth) is left to clean up the ecologically destroyed world that humanity abandoned. After seven hundred years, EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator) is sent in search of any sort of life or vegetation that would indicate livable conditions on the planet and allow the return of humans. She becomes aware of a plant WALL-E has acquired and promptly returns it to the Axiom, the ‘space cruise’ where humans now live. Here, the audience gets a chilling look at what modern culture developed into since their departure from Earth. When the captain fails to identify soil, it gives him a thirst for knowledge that leads him to rediscover the entire forgotten planet with all it’s natural beauty and everything it has to offer.


Critical Discussion

Western Culture Bursting with Trouble - One strong aspect of the movie that helps to illustrate the relationship between the western world and Earth is the “richly detailed satire” (Stevens) of contemporary American culture. Though people in the United States can range from extreme capitalists to extreme environmentalists (and then everyone in between), creating this general culture of “infantile consumers who spend their days immobile in hovering lounge chairs” (Stevens) more clearly establishes the blame for Earths ruin. Clifford Geertz views culture as “a context, something [that] can be intelligibly - that is ‘thickly’ – described” (Geertz). His article hinted that the further one dives into a culture, the more complicated and complex it becomes. So, by showing the basic ‘thick’ cultural description in the film, it helps the audience connect with the overall vices of American culture that aided to the destruction of their planet without diving into the thousands of ‘exceptions to the rule’. The inhabitants upon the Axiom are morbidly obese, materialistic and a seemingly unintelligent group who hold no concern for the planet they have destroyed, which to be fair is how modern Americans are generally viewed.  It makes the comment that it is these vices that began the disconnect of humanity with the environment and cumulated with them forgetting about it altogether. Now on their space cruise, the people cannot take their eyes away from the ads on the screen no more than spare a second to realize the environment they are missing and what they have left behind.  Their depiction as a culture whose sole concern lays ‘cupcakes in a cup’ and interactive golf is an effective lens to view their depleted relationship with the environment.


The Failings of Technological Advancements - The depiction of technology throughout the movie demonstrates the strain on the relationship between the western culture and the environment as well. From the autopilot system who runs the ship to the hover chairs where the humans seem to be glued, technology works its way into every part of life on the Axiom. Robots serve humans their food, the color of their clothes is changed by technology, and even when a human falls out of their chair they cannot lift themselves up without the help of WALL-E. The humans seem to develop a disconnection from everything around them, which shows when two characters are separated from their hover screens and finally realize that there is a real world and real people all around them. Due to the increasing dependence on technology, humanity developed a disconnection with their environment and Earth. They completely destroy earth and their only solution is the robot series WALL-E, another technological advancement. They seem to have such a breadth of knowledge and potential, yet it has been wasted away the frivolous thoughts and toys. This idea seems to parallel the world today, especially in the way Sanho Tree articulates his ideas on the evolving general attitude in the modern world. . He stated, “our technology and our society is evolving faster than our wisdom to integrate a lot of these forces in a sustainable way” (Tree).  Technological advancements used to develop much slower, allowing time for wisdom to evolve with them, yet now Tree argues that there is such a rush of technology that the evolution of wisdom cannot keep up. WALL-E shows this perfectly as they film is filled with technology yet none of it seems to be used for the better. Why was none of their potential used to save the planets condition, or how about not letting it reach that condition at all? Instead of trying to find a solution, focus was put on the pure entertainment of civilization, so when the Earth starting dying they just took their technology and flew away. WALL-E provides a strong commentary that so much technology should not be evolving if we cannot maintain the right mind set and ideas on how to use the new found power. 


Power Leading to Violence - Throughout the film, hidden acts of violence are committed to the Earth as part of the power stance that humans take in their relationship with the environment. The smaller acts the humans do things such as litter and waste are what Philippe Bourgois defines as everyday violence. This is described as “daily practices of violence on a micro-interactional level: interpersonal, domestic and delinquent…normalizes petty brutalities and terror” (Bourgois, 426). Bourgois argues that small, repeated acts become so routine that sometimes they fall away from the explicit line of openly violent. An example of this is when one of the characters on Axiom throws away his soda cup at WALL-E; this waste has become so common that nobody realizes the damage and violence that is being. On Earth, the small acts grew larger and larger, the cumulative effect being an Earth that is now inhabitable. However, as previously noted this everyday violence continues even after they abandon Earth as the wasting and pollution continues in space.


The people on board the Axiom seem to have a sense of dominating power over the environment that could explain why the violence is able to be committed. By the end of the film though, humanity realizes that the Earth holds the hegemonic power holds over them, not the other way around. The attitude that western culture held was that they were dominant over Earth and could treat it how they pleased, resulting in its ruin. Karl Marx had a similar theory on power in that it was all held within a single entity and all others are powerless. His theory seems to be present in the film, but by the end the entity holding power is planet Earth. The humans realize that in order live harmoniously with planet Earth, they must realize that it is bigger than them and must be treated with respect, not constant abuse.


Conclusion

WALL-E is able to function as a warning and commentary to modern western society about its relationship with the environment by illustrating the potential effects of a troubled modern culture, high dependency on technology, and a domineering attitude of power. By showing these major themes in a fun loving family film, WALL-E creates a commentary for all ages that warns of what is to come if life continues the way it is going. Is our relationship with the environment slipping into one similar to the one of the inhabitants of the Axiom. The people on the Axiom show a satire of humanity so close to modern western culture that it is not possible to walk away from the movie and not imaging this happen in a few decades. It leaves you with the question, is the situation in WALL-E our looming future?


Works Cited

Bourgois, Philippe. “The Continuum of Violence in War and Peace.” Violence in War and Peace. Print.

 

Geertz, Clifford. “Thick Description.” The Interpretation of Cultures: selected essays. New York: Basic Books, 1973. Print.

 

Stanton, Andrew. Interview. 10 June 2008. Web. 10 May 2011.

 

Stevens, Dana. “Robot Wisdom.” Slate (2008): n. pag. Web. 10 May 2011

 

Tree, Sanho. University of Washington, Seattle, WA. 20 Apr 2011. Lecture