My parents’ house stands near both a small wooded park and an elementary school. One day, my father was sitting on the porch when he saw several kids walking home from school, their eyes glued to their smartphones. As they crossed the street, he called to them to look up. They then saw that a small family of deer were also crossing the street not 20 feet away from them.
This anecdote recalls a strange and wonderful little film that came out ten years ago today. The kids’ movie featured very little dialogue (almost none in the first half) and bracketed the story with songs and clips from a 40-year-old musical that is best remembered as a notorious flop. There was nothing quite like it at the time, and has been nothing quite like it since.
The film, of course, was “WALL-E,” and no one but Pixar at the height of its creative powers could have made it. Like its protagonist, WALL-E is a quirky little machine that says little, feels much, and coasts on innocence and wonder to achieve more than would seem possible. So much did this little film impress audiences and critics that there was talk of nominating it for Best Picture. Most of the films that did receive the nomination that year justly disappeared down the memory hole, while “WALL-E” remains as vibrant and striking as ever.
Indeed, in some ways “WALL-E” is even more relevant today than when it came out. The image of the world it presents, of listless humans with their faces perpetually glued to their screens, who expect to have everything provided for them and don’t use half of what they’ve been given as they lament their boredom, has only grown more recognizable in the intervening decade, as has the suffocating sterility of a world of arbitrary rules intended to guard everyone against any form of discomfort.
Beauty Will Save the World
You probably all know the story: hundreds of years into the future, mankind has fled the environmentally devastated Earth, leaving a single robot to doggedly attempt to clean up the mountains of trash all on his own. Through centuries of interacting with the relics of mankind, little WALL-E has developed quite a human, and even romantic, personality of his own, with a strong appreciation for wonder and beauty. The silent-film storytelling of this section is justly praised, as is the humor—how many films can get a laugh out of a spork?
One day, his lonely but predictable life is shattered when a spaceship arrives bearing the beautiful EVE, a probe droid sent to find out if the Earth has become habitable again. WALL-E is instantly smitten, and his unconditional love for EVE sets off a chain of events that end up bringing mankind’s 700 years of exile to an end.
The film is often described as an environmental parable, or a caution against consumerism. Those things are present, but they are subordinate themes. The main thesis of the film is something much more universal, interesting, and timely. Fyodor Dostoyevsky famously said in “The Idiot” that “beauty will save the world.” In its own quirky little way, that is the central idea of “WALL-E.”
Little WALL-E has a great appreciation for beauty, as demonstrated in his introductory scenes, and when EVE appears on Earth he almost immediately falls in love with her. Beauty inspires love. His love for her leads him to try to care for her when she shuts down, then to follow when her spaceship returns to take her back. Love carries a sense of obligation and duty, and the courage and senseless determination to carry it out. Because he loves, he will do and face anything for the sake of his beloved.
This same pattern plays out with the captain of the Axiom, the ship where the human race “enjoys” endless leisure in an almost comatose indifference. He is at first merely curious about the strange substance called “dirt” that WALL-E brought into his chambers, and has the computer analyze it. Then, on seeing images of the Earth in its heyday, he is awed by its beauty and falls in love with the planet.
When he discovers what it has become, he realizes that he has a responsibility to his home. This sense of duty gives him the courage to stand up to the autopilot and at last take control of his own destiny. So, beauty saves the world because it inspires love, which in turn inspires duty, and with it the courage to carry it out.
Sacrifice for the Sake of Beauty-Inspired Love
In both cases, the characters spontaneously adopt self-sacrificial behaviors for the sake of the thing they love. WALL-E abandons his home and familiar life for EVE, then repeatedly risks his safety for the sake of the plant that is the object of her mission. The captain realizes that humanity’s comfortable life on the Axiom has to end to help the Earth recover. No one forces them to do these things; they do them out of love.
They see and instinctively feel the value of the things they are sacrificing for. Whether present in beauty, as in WALL-E’s love for EVE, or beauty that once was and might be again, as in the captain’s love for the Earth, it is something that they ought to and wish to help and protect. It is a duty that goes far beyond and overrides the Axiom’s rigid “rules.”
To perceive goodness is to perceive an obligation toward it. Our problem today is that, like the people on the Axiom, we have largely lost any idea of goodness or beauty through our world’s stifling artificiality. We are so wrapped in our own superficial desires and chasing the latest fads that we are blind to the realities around us, while smothering rules designed to defend against any form of danger or discomfort keep us from looking elsewhere.
What can break this cycle? Genuine love and devotion. WALL-E breaks humanity out of its stupor simply by steadfastly pursuing EVE. In the process, he’s obliged to break the rules of the Axiom and literally take blinders off the people around him. Because he values something for its own sake more than he values safety or “following the program,” he shatters the program for everyone around him.
It is this, I believe, that will save us from the plastic PC prison we have created for ourselves: not railing against the system as such, but loving something to the point that we simply ignore the system entirely, or defy it if it attempts to impede us in our pursuit.
Many Things Are More Important Than Comfort
I think those who run our own Axiom know this very well, to judge by how desperately they attempt to discourage us from anything that we might value more than the comfort and safety they offer. Thus we are discouraged from looking too closely at the past because people there were intolerant and ignorant. We are discouraged from reading great literature because it is largely the world of patriarchal “dead white men.”
Great art is dismissed as simplistic or voyeuristic compared to the hideous nonsense that fills modern art galleries. The family is derided as narrow and arbitrary. Religion is attacked as superstitious and, again, intolerant. Everything that threatens to inspire selfless admiration and devotion is carefully shunted aside and hidden, as every trace of Earth is scrubbed from the Axiom.
But all this effort must be in vain, for even when hidden, these things are still there waiting to be found. Early in the film is a scene where WALL-E, standing on the roof of his broken-down truck, looks up to see a small break in the worldwide cloud cover, through which a few stars twinkle down. It calls to mind an almost exactly similar scene in “The Lord of the Rings,” where Sam sees a star shining through the clouds covering Mordor: “For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty forever beyond its reach.”
“WALL-E” is itself one of those beautiful works of art that tempt us out of our blind stupor: a film every bit as important today as when it was released. It reminds us that comfort and safety are not the same thing as happiness, that surviving is much less important than living, and that beauty, and the love it inspires, can work wonders.