WALL-E Turns 15
It’s hard to articulate just what it is that’s so special about WALL-E. It’s also hard to fathom that the film is 15 years old - it was released on June 23, 2008 - because it’s one of the few Pixar films that I have constantly revisited over and over again since its release, and every time I watch it I am just as deeply moved as I was the first time I saw it in theaters.
The team at Pixar has a gift for making films that will leave you with a lump in your throat (or full-on sobbing - I’m looking at you, opening prologue of Up). Common wisdom is that animated films are meant for kids, but the writing found in Pixar films is so sharply and sophisticatedly written that I strongly suspect that though their content is pretty much always G-rated so kids can see them in theaters, these movies are actually meant for adults.
Despite the G rating, the premise of WALL-E is pretty dark. Due to consumerism, corporate greed, and environmental neglect, Earth is no longer a safe place for humans to inhabit, and megacorp Buy ‘n’ Large (BnL) has evacuated all humans into space on giant starliners. Trash compacting robots are left behind to clean up the garbage-strewn planet. We eventually learn that BnL originally intended for the evacuation to be temporary, but when it became clear that the mission to make the planet safe for humanity to return home was taking longer than expected, BnL kept extending the duration of the space cruises without any transparency as to why they were doing so. After centuries aboard the starliners, humans have all become obese due to microgravity and laziness with ship robots catering to their every need. They are unable to walk, and mobility is only possible due to the moving lounge chairs in which they all sit. The Captain of the Axiom, the mothership of the evacuation mission, is no exception to this rule, spending most of his day sleeping, chilling in his lounge chair, and allowing AUTO, his robot auto-pilot, to pilot the ship.
By 2085, there is only one trash compactor left on Earth, still fulfilling his directive to clean things up. This is the titular WALL-E (Waste Allocation Load-Lifter: Earth Class), who has developed a personality. He maintains himself by salvaging parts from inactive robots, collecting discarded items during his workday that he finds interesting, and keeps a cockroach as a pet.
But he is lonely. One of the items he keeps in his collection is an archival recording of Hello, Dolly! and he watches it nearly every day, transfixed by the singing and dancing humans, and when the romantic song sequence “It Only Takes a Moment” comes on, he gazes at it wistfully, observing the humans holding hands and looking at his own robotic “fingers” wondering whether it would be possible for him to hold another’s hand.
WALL-E’s life is upended when a probe descends to Earth containing EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator), a sleek, egg-shaped robot whose directive is to scan the planet for signs of sustainable life. WALL-E falls in love with EVE immediately, and she seems to find him cute, too. The two begin to spend time together and connect until WALL-E shows her one of his recent collector’s items that he has found during his workday: a shoe containing a living plant seedling. EVE seizes the plant and goes into standby mode until the probe collects both her and the plant to return to space. WALL-E panics, not wanting to lose his new friend (potential girlfriend?), and manages to cling to the ship as it returns to the Axiom.
The plant is evidence that life can be supported on Earth, and EVE is programmed to deliver the plant to the Captain of the Axiom. While the Captain is unprepared for this scenario, he intends to follow through with his orders to insert the plant into a detection device in the cockpit that will trigger a hyper-jump back to Earth so that humans can recolonize their home planet.
This plan goes awry, however, due to the fact that AUTO has been programmed with a top-secret no-return directive after BnL CEO Shelby Forthright (played - in person, not Pixar-animated - by the late, great Fred Willard) declared in a private message to all auto-pilot robots aboard BnL starliners that Earth could not be saved. Despite WALL-E’s plant discovery proving Forthright wrong and EVE bringing it back to the Axiom, AUTO instructs his lackey, the robot GO-4, to dispose of the plant. The Captain orders AUTO to override his no-return directive and AUTO and GO-4 mutiny, incapacitating both WALL-E and EVE and locking the Captain in his quarters.
While WALL-E and EVE are able to escape, the plant, still nestled in a shoe, gets lost in the shuffle and ends up on the main deck of the Axiom, where both human passengers and robots team up to secure it. Meanwhile, the Captain and AUTO fight for control of the ship, and the Captain finally forces himself to push out of his lounge chair, takes several unsteady and labored steps, and overpowers AUTO by putting him into manual mode. EVE has gotten hold of the plant again and inserts it into the ship’s detector to trigger the hyper-jump.
Unfortunately, during the fight between AUTO and the Captain, AUTO electrocutes and then crushes WALL-E in a machine, correctly ascertaining that WALL-E is helping EVE and the Captain to get everyone back to Earth and hoping that a Hail Mary pass of damaging WALL-E would keep the humans in space. Back on Earth, EVE repairs WALL-E, but discovers that his memory and personality have been erased. Heartbroken, she gives him a goodbye robot kiss, which reactivates his old personality. (Love triumphs over all!) As they reunite, the Axiom passengers take their first tentative steps on Earth, and the film closes with a montage of humans and robots working together to restore Earth to a green, life-supporting environment.
The misadventures and drama on the desolate Earth landscape and aboard the Axiom are depicted with Pixar’s trademark cheeky humor. I particularly like the scene where we discover that the boxy, clunky WALL-E is not only solar-powered but is also an Apple device, as when he powers on in the morning he chimes with the trademark Apple start-up noise. This is echoed later on when we meet EVE, who is a much more modern robot in design than WALL-E (presumably having been manufactured decades if not hundreds of years later) and her sleek elegance resembles the sleek elegance of an iPhone. And of course, any movie in space inevitably must include tongue-in-cheek allusions to Star Trek (the Captain of the Axiom makes a daily announcement to his passengers that sounds an awful lot like a “Captain’s Log” entry from James T. Kirk) and to 2001: A Space Odyssey. The conflict between the Captain and AUTO is reminiscent of the conflict between the astronauts and HAL in Act 2 of Odyssey (not to mention that the Captain’s first tentative steps on the floor of the Axiom to vanquish AUTO are scored to the “Sunrise” fanfare of Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra). That being said, this is a film that is, at its core, about the dangers of not safeguarding our environment, the dangers of a culture of laziness and apathy leading to unhealthy lifestyles (as seen by the condition of the human inhabitants aboard the Axiom), and the dangers of AI technology. It is bleak as fuck.
So why is it so moving? I find myself holding back tears every time I revisit this film, and at the end of the day, it’s not the humans’ triumphant return to Earth that tugs on my heartstrings. It’s the romance - yes, a robot romance - between WALL-E and EVE that carries the film.
The character design of WALL-E is masterful, with his metallic goggle-like eyes being able to move expressively in a human way. We can see the way his eyes seem to fill with wonder while watching footage of Hello, Dolly!, the way they light up whenever he sees Eve, the way his eyes droop when EVE goes into standby mode after she seizes his plant and stops interacting with him, the way his eyes go wide with fear when EVE departs Earth on her ship and every time they find themselves in danger on the Axiom. WALL-E is literally a perfect depiction of an anthropomorphized object, and we root for him to succeed, help save the humans, and get the "girl" because his physical appearance and body language are just human enough that we can identify with him. EVE is not as noticeably physically expressive as WALL-E (she floats around ethereally without touching the ground in comparison to WALL-E chugging along goofily with his tank-like wheels), but her glowing eyes are also a window into her own personality, showing that she too is kind of a sentient being despite being a robot.
What’s even more incredible about the love story of WALL-E and EVE is that the two of them do not have any English dialogue beyond each others’ names and the word “directive”. Their communication is all in their physicality, in their respective robotic noises, and in the tone of their voices when they speak each others’ names (Ben Burtt and Elissa Knight, the voice actors for WALL-E and EVE, do an absolutely brilliant job in this area), and yet their friendship, connection, and eventual deep love for each other is completely believable. There is a sequence where the two of them, accidentally having been ejected off of the Axiom during AUTO and GO-4’s attempts to thwart the recolonization plan, come together and dance in space around the ship before re-entering. It is hands down one of the most beautiful and romantic sequences I have ever seen in an animated film.
When I watched WALL-E again in preparation for writing this anniversary piece, my wonderfully cynical boyfriend commented that it’s a shame that in the past 15 years, humans have seemingly learned nothing about how to protect our planet from the environmental damage of consumerism and corporate greed. We are all well aware that humans are continuing to damage our environment, and WALL-E is just one of many cinematic science fiction morality tales about the potential consequences of not safeguarding our world. It’s another way in which the film can be read as deeply depressing. But the actual viewing experience of WALL-E is ultimately hopeful. Its overarching message, essentially, is that our planet may be doomed, but as long as there is the capacity for connection, life is still worth living, and love is still worth fighting for.
Reeya is a musician and writer based in New York's Capital District. Her debut album, “The Way Up,” was released on January 27, 2022. She can frequently be seen in her car on the NYS Thruway cursing traffic on her way to the Hudson Valley for band rehearsals or to Brooklyn for recording sessions. In her other life, she works as a staff accountant for a management company that oversees veterinary practices nationwide, enjoys watching Law & Order SVU returns while eating gummy bears, and has a film degree from Vassar College that she does not use.