We live with constant news of environmental catastrophe and possible, probable and certain extinctions, including humankind’s. Granted, the reports are sometimes contradictory. Polar bears have become the bellwether for global warming due to loss of habitat, but the news the other day said they’ll all retire south to Alaska and be fine. Maybe they’ll have a gated community.
There are other positive notes. For a while it seemed like every week there was a report on a new species being discovered. The headlines implied we could continue treating the earth however we liked, because it would always adapt and grow. “Yeah, but all they ever discover is a slightly different jungle rat with a little bit bigger tail,” my friend Crazy Larry said. “It’s never something high on the food chain, like a new tiger. We’re done. Pretty soon the earth will be completely paved, and the bald, shivering mole people will be left to eat each other.”
Our species has always had a terror of and appetite for the apocalypse. (As far back as 1983 you were partying like it was 1999. You were, weren’t you! I know I was.) Its anticipated causes have varied. God might end the world with water, fire or plagues, but everybody knew the underlying cause was His wrath. Then we stole His fire to make nuclear weapons and saw we could have all the wrath and none of the god—Apocalypse Light. In any case, it was our apocalypse, not His, and we determined to improve on it by making the technology small enough to fit in a briefcase. We did it so well that now a plague will fit in that case too, along with a sack lunch and a bottled water.
Global warming is another end-times scenario. (Just because it’s a scenario doesn’t mean it’s not an inconvenient truth.) But the global warming story is old enough now that we’ve entered the post-Gore era, and stories increasingly are defeatist, as if we’re dead clades walking, getting what we deserve for crudding up the planet.
Besides, we say to each other, what’s the use? If our beloved Yellowstone doesn’t kill us all, then surely an asteroid will. (Google lists 207,00 results for a search on “asteroid collision.” Look at this loving depiction of such an event.) As the Times wrote, “If nature is left to its own devices, about 7.59 billion years from now Earth will be dragged from its orbit by an engorged red Sun and spiral to a rapid vaporous death.” This is like going back to square one and fearing an angry sun god. We might as well use up the earth and bug out.
That’s certainly what happened in Pixar’s new movie, WALL-E, which we went to see on opening day. Our family’s reviews were mixed. Three-year old Wolfie was bored enough halfway through to start the jumping-from-one-lap-to-another game. Six-year old Starbuck asked a lot of questions as it played. Mrs. Churm and I liked it but wondered why we don’t get out more often. A.O. Scott at the Times called it “genius.”
Warning: spoilers ahead.
It’s grim, and I credit that as an accomplishment. It’s set in a time, 700 years from now, after Wal-Mart—oops, Buy N Large—has ruined the earth. All that’s left is the garbage, the last functioning garbage robot, WALL-E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class), and his cockroach pal. The city he labors in looks frighteningly like the Manhattan of 9-11, down to the boiling dust clouds and tattered plastic and paper flapping everywhere from irregular surfaces. This backdrop is powerful, even painful to see. He's developed a heart of gold, this robot, and he’s a byte lonely, but I had a hard time caring about him when I thought the human race—indeed, all life on earth save that cockroach—had been killed. Many of the constructions I took for ruined skyscrapers are actually mountains of garbage he’s compacted, lo these many Sisyphean, pointless, mindless, hopeless years.
But he seems not to mind his job, and who can blame him? He’s got tenure. In fact, there’s nothing WALL-E loves more than our garbage. He has a giant rotating series of racks for the best bits: Zippos, plastic cutlery, light bulbs, a Rubik’s cube. That mimicry of our consumerism is what keeps him going (along with the occasional sunbath to recharge the old solar panels), until, that is, EVE (Extra-terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator) blasts into town with her sleek Apple computer styling and death-dealing laser guns. She’s the Angelina Jolie of robots. However, with their limited range of emotion and ability to communicate, even with each other, calling this a love story would be like saying Pong is Wimbledon. What are they gonna do, interface?
But then that’s perfect for Pixar, who never did people very well anyway. Ever see their first short about a little toy drum major trying to get away from a human baby? There wasn’t a more horrifying Hollywood attempt to animate a person until Tom Hanks showed up in Polar Express. Compared to Pixar's toys, ants, monsters, fish, cars, rats and robots, the people always come up short. (The exception being when the studio uses newer technologies to animate people like traditional cartoon characters, as in The Incredibles.) Who else better to do a film where the humans are all gone and a meek little robot has inherited the earth?
As it turns out, of course, the human race isn’t extinct. Those who remained after the earth was trashed went to live on a cruise ship in space, where the same corporation pampers them into obesity and prods them to consume more. They drink cupcake-in-a-cup because that’s the daily special, and with a push of a button (on their hovering chaise lounges they can’t lift themselves from) their outfits change from red to blue because The Voice said blue was in.
It’s a satire on our diversions from misery caused by diversions, and I’m very interested in the use of sad, pointed, or disturbing images in humor. But I don’t care much about Pixar’s people, either. (Think of skinless, boneless chicken breasts injected with water, modified food starch, salt, monosodium glutamate, sodium phosphates, chicken broth, natural flavor, maltodextrin, spice, autolyzed yeast, chicken fat, polysorbate 80, and gum arabic.) They’re…cute, babyish, kin to the fat, self-centered Mr. Incredible. They don’t get it together so much as the robots perform heroically, and when they return to reclaim the earth, there’s a running gag that the Captain will put everyone to work “growing pizza.” Is this the post-Gore story we’re ready for now? The defeat-turned-questionable-triumph? If that’s the best we can imagine, what’s the use?