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Wall-E and the meaning of life

Was the ending of Pixar's 'Wall-E' meant to be inspirational for the preservation of the human race, or did it just tell us that being a fat slob in space will be rewarded?

Let’s take a trip back to early summer 2008. Do you remember those simpler times? In those days, you could get $7 million for a home mortgage simply by proving your blood alcohol level was within one and a half times the legal limit. In politics, John McCain was still two months away from releasing the Alaskan Kraken on an unsuspecting United States. And in entertainment, Pixar put out another beautiful, perfect family film in Wall-E.

Make no mistake, Wall-E is a great movie, ballsy in that Pixar way of trusting the audience enough to allow the first 30 minutes to play out virtually free of dialogue. Beyond that, it was funny, complicated, soulful — you know, the kind of thing Pixar does every year they’re not releasing Cars. I loved it … right up until the end credits.

Let’s put the obligatory SPOILER WARNING here in case you’re the kind of person that gets mad when someone talks about what happened in a three-year-old movie. (And if you are that kind of person, maybe you should stop reading this essay and head directly to a mirror for some serious soul-searching).

Okay, so if you’ll remember, at the end of Wall-E, Captain McCrea decides to fulfill the ultimate mission of The Axiom and, without consulting with the humans on the ship, lands on Earth to start rehabilitating a planet destroyed by over-consumption. Over the course of the end credits we learn via pictogram that the passengers of the Axiom and their descendants essentially become farmers, bringing back the earth’s greenery and losing some serious lbs in the process.

Happy ending, right? Well, I’m not so sure.

The ending always bothered me because it makes the assumption that being a fat, spoiled hedonist is somehow worse than being a skinny, hardworking farmer. This is the kind of back-to-nature BS you hear from second-year English majors trying to pry the pants off a girl in his Romantic Poetry class. I’m pretty sure that any farmer in the 10,000 year history of civilization would much rather be sucking down milkshakes in a floating chair than hitchin’ up the oxen for another day of plowin’.

Beyond that, the ending of Wall-E states pretty flatly that a life of hedonism is a life misspent. It’s saying that pleasure might be okay, but that the kind of unending pleasure you might experience on an eternal space-cruise empties life of its meaning. The message here is that it’s only by working hard — getting our hands dirty in the soil! — that we can experience the proper kind of happiness.

That’s so much in keeping with Mayflower puritanism that you might as well dress EVE in a black wool dress and send her over to John Proctor’s house.

And I don’t think it’s over-stating to call the ending of Wall-E puritanical. The humans on The Axiom are experiencing heaven while they’re still alive (think about it: they live in the sky, do no work, float like big fat angels, and have their every need satisfied). Within the movie’s philosophy, this is a sin, something you don’t deserve while there’s still work to do on earth. The pursuit of pleasure for pleasure’s sake is fundamentally wrong in the Wall-E universe.

My question to you is this: What’s so wrong about being big fat space fatties?

No, before you ask, I’m not high on model glue right now; I’m being serious. Where you stand on space-fattiness is where you stand on what it means to be a human.

Here’s what I mean: We are on this earth for a purpose. We don’t know what that purpose is, but we’ve made some guesses over the last couple of millennia. Everything from “serve God” to “absolutely nothing” to “make sure L. Ron Hubbard gets really rich” has been offered, but there is still some slight disagreement.

Some would argue that part of our purpose here on Earth is to make our time here on Earth as painless as possible. Indeed, every time someone invents something that makes our lives easier, they’re hailed as a benefactor for human kind (except, sadly for the inventor of YouPorn — where the hell is his statue?)

Well, the space-fatties in Wall-E represent the apex of making life easier. Their every physical need is taken care of; they don’t have to worry about anything, with the possible exception of losing a foot to diabetes, and I think it’s safe to say that in the future, they’ll be some kind of moon-insulin that fixes Type 2 diabetes for good.

Sure they’re lazy and spoiled, but … so what? If there is literally no downside to being lazy and spoiled, what, exactly, is wrong with being lazy and spoiled? I mean, we all hate Paris Hilton, but we’d all trade lives with her in a millisecond (even dudes; hell, I’ll learn to pee sitting down if it means I can blow $80K on a Chihuahua collar).

The entire history of mankind has been devoted to working as hard as we can to make sure that our children don’t have to work as hard as we do. Should we ever get to the point where all the hard work is done — where we’re all living on a giant space-cruiser playing virtual tennis — why should we be upset at that?

Put another way — if you were a passenger on The Axiom, wouldn’t you have a real beef with the captain for deciding that your way of life was intrinsically wrong? Why is farming morally superior to space-napping?

I’d like to hear your answers in the comments. If I’m crazy, tell me I’m crazy. I’ve got enough model glue here to handle any amount of criticism you throw my way. …


Photo Credit: Pixar

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Categories: Features, General

One Response to “Wall-E and the meaning of life”

April 24, 2011 at 1:25 AM

Well… I dunno about all that.

Pixar has a well-known pattern of subverting expectations but also of presenting certain types of sociological perspectives that aren’t necessarily the most palatable to our ears.

Monsters Inc showed us a treacly if heartwarming story wrapped around a world of terrified citizens with an honestly frightening connection to the human reality. The Incredibles was a bit more obvious, with its themes of humanity being unable to accept the special and “If Everyone’s Special, No One Is.” And Cars had cars that could talk, which is the most terrifying world of them all.

So in Wall-E, I think the message is not just about hard work and painfree life, but about the consumption of resources and the value of personal interaction. The reason I say this is that effectively all of the humans on the ship lived in the Matrix, for all they knew of the outside world and other peoples. There are a lot of unanswered questions in the movie – did we ever see any old people? How long did people live? What about diseases? Is a short and pain-free but content-free life worth it?

Tough call… I’d miss asparagus.