WALL-E and Utopia

Curator's Note

In an era of ever-worsening ecological catastrophe, where can we still find hope? One interesting, if complicated, attempt to imagine an alternate trajectory for the future comes somewhat unexpectedly during the final credit sequence of beloved Pixar film WALL-E. In the film the familiar techno-utopian logic of inevitable progress and interstellar expansion into Star-Trek-style galactic paradise has been reversed: here, instead, the child-like janitorial robot WALL-E has brought the morbidly obese Americans of the future back to the Earth they once ruined, and robot and human together begin the difficult process of rehabilitating a global ecology human activity has completely destroyed.

WALL-E’s attempt to imagine a non-apocalyptic future is not (and perhaps cannot be) depicted narratively. Instead, it is represented through a suggestive montage showing some aspect of the new historical situation as filtered some artistic medium of the past—the sort of artistic media Pixar might consider its own computer-generated practice to have superseded, from cave paintings to Monet’s watercolors—blessedly cutting off with the landscape art of Vincent van Gogh in, one supposes, an attempt to avoid having to endure the many disasters of the twentieth century a second time.

The paradox inherent in this vision of ecotopia is clear: the montage sidesteps the question of how the generally hopeless ecological situation the film depicts (a hyperbolic, super-exaggerated version of the quagmire we find ourselves in) could ever actually get any better, finding recourse instead in a nostalgia that imagines this better future as a replication of the very historical path that led us into disaster in the first place. But something else is at work. The sheer oddness of the montage—the bizarre temporal juxtapositions, the anachronistic presence of robots at every stage of history—prevents this from being the bad-utopian fantasy of “return to nature” it might initially appear to be. The happy future interrupts both our broken present and our mourned past, promising something hybrid and genuinely new. In foregrounding the impossibility of imagining true historical difference, while insisting at the same time on the vital necessity of doing so, WALL-E pushes us unexpectedly in the direction of utopia, forcing us to think about what the radical singularity of a break from the nightmare of our actual history might entail, and to recognize just how desperately we need it. Here history, for a few scant minutes at least, becomes unfixed; the curse is lifted; another, better world is possible.


What I found interesting about the montage is that WALL-E’s non-apocalyptic future could be seen as a repeat of the past. The montage might not be artistic mediums of the past, but showing how the future is essentially the starting over of humanity. I agree that this is showing “an attempt to avoid having to endure the many disasters of the twentieth century a second time,” but the humans of 2805 are reliving the artistic and cultural wonders a second time. It’s as if EVE the finding of the plant represents a second big bang, and as such the montage shows the world starting over - but instead of cavemen doing the drawings it is the humans of the year 2805 who have finally returned to earth. On the ship the society depended on technology, and they would not eat, walk, or think without it. They must now relearn what made humans and civilizations great: how to build the wondrous Pyramids, the storytelling of Greek myths, art, music, and architecture. Now, returned to earth, they must learn to make fire as their caveman ancestors once did; but they are not alone; they now have help from WALL-E and EVE. They must learn how to be an intelligent society again along with technology, and how to not repeat the destruction that caused them to flee earth in the first place. At the end of the montage, WALL-E and EVE walk to a tree. Panning down, underneath the green grass and dirt are the roots, leading to an old boot. This could further show that the montage isn’t an homage to the past, but that the humans of 2805 have had to start over, learning from history (but not repeating the mistakes).

I had to cut my mention of the boot for space, but it's interesting -- that's a van Gogh boot, too, the one Jameson makes so much of in POSTMODERNISM....

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