Friday, August 28, 2009

WALL-E: The Future We're Afraid Of

I had the opportunity to see the movie WALL-E for the first time a couple days ago. I know, I'm a little behind, but I had been wanting to see it for a long time. I will say it was an amazing work of art that held my attention for every second.
The movie, for those who have not seen, I highly recommend you see it. It essentially about Earth in the distant future after humans have destroyed it with our pollution. Humans took off into space to look for greener pastures and left automated robots behind to clean up. The film is motivated by this overall plot, but also by themes of love, conspiracy, and what I find to be an interesting commentary on the human race.
I decided to write this note to talk about all the things this movie said about people through either obvious, or more subtle, ways. I am trying to write the note so as not to give any spoilers, but I apologize if I let one slip.

Let me begin with the clear issue of environmental degradation. The earth in the future is totally filled with trash, what appears to be mostly solid waste, that we apparently just ran out of room for. The surface is totally devoid of water, presumably there is no ground water either, and the air is devoid of clouds in the normal sense. The clouds in the movie are brown, suggesting nitrogen or sulfur gases. There is no plant life, as there is no water, and the surface is more like a desert than anything else. Dust storms, or what appears to be dust, regularly plagues the air. The scenery described by the movie is a metropolitan area full of trash and abandoned buildings. The birds eye views picture the once massive, glorious skyscraper towers spread for miles, pinnacles of human achievement. The reminisce of human civilization is bittersweet.

This portrayal of Earth describes, what I think are, two major points. One, that humans are destroying our planet. The magnificence of civilization comes at a cost that we cannot afford. Environmental degradation is not only forcing irreparable climate change but is sucking the planet dry of the very life that sustains us and itself. We are creating so much waste, waste we cannot eliminate, that eventually it will take up more space than the world has to offer.
Further this point is saying that if we do not stop what we are doing now, the world will look like that in a couple hundred years. Basically, the authors are extrapolating current conditions for several hundred years. Without commenting on the political implications of this, which I'm sure you can guess at, I will say that one of the big errors many people make when studying trends is extrapolation. In general, conditions will change or there is a leveling off point for any trend. Of course something needs to change, but I am confident that it will.
The second major point this portrayal of Earth conveys, more artistically, is the perspective of time. The movie makes today seem so insignificant. The theme of everything rotting to dust, or sand, paints a perfect picture of how temporary our material wealth is, or for that matter how temporary we are. This movie seems to be void of real historical figures who make lasting effects on humanity. In the end, we are but dust in the wind. The dust storms are almost the ghosts of we who destroyed the planet still haunting it and the towers, the pinnacle of civilization, are but crumbling to sand.

The second issue the movie hits hard is the pathetic mentality of the human race. The legacy left behind on Earth and the move to space seems mostly to be motivated by a large corporation, resembling Wal-Mart, called Big and Large. The world is ruled by it's CEO, and B&L stores, franchises, and merged branches are everywhere. On the ship where humans now reside, completely owned by B&L, people are saturated in advertisement, convenience, and leisurely lifestyles.

The world was presumably destroyed due to heavy, unregulated economic growth, motivated mostly by the corporation B&L and the consumerism motivating it. Humans are so concerned with what they want, all the stuff they can get. Material possessions are so important that people are completely oblivious not only to the horrendous political situation of having a corporation running the world, but to the idea they are destroying it. As long as they get what they want and life is easy, then there isn't a problem.
This is a result of extrapolation of current human behavior. Consumerism is also a problem today. Markets are flooded with things to make life easier and more leisurely. Credit card debt is massive, advertisements are abundant, and the idea that money buys happiness is the message that people buy every day. Over-consumption, leading to obesity, the number one disease in America, is everywhere. Peoples desires are satisfied without restraint. This mindset is nothing short of a disease plaguing our society. We are finding more ways to satisfy people's unlimited wants and its not only hurting mental and spiritual health, but its taking its toll on our resources, the planet, as described in the first point. I know it seems uncharacteristic of me to criticize economically driven society, but when economic development is mingled in with a society of people who care more about what they own than anything else, it turns into consumerist prostitution, which is something, ashamedly indeed, the US resembles most in the world.

This leads directly into my third point. Peoples striving to get more of what they want at the cost of everything else inevitably invites laziness. This is easy to show, as the more people have, the less they work. The more provided to you, the more convenient it is, and the more satisfying it is, the more desirable it will be because it means you can have unlimited enjoyment for the minimum monetary cost. I read that and see a major goal of economic thought. Here is the problem presented though: when people are told what they want, when they believe everything they're told, and when the cost of satisfaction becomes so cheap that you hardly have to work for it, then people rely on everything else to give them what they want. The only real way for that to happen is for resources to reach an abundance where the point of diminishing returns (where you start getting less stuff for the same amount of work) is unreachable (I would claim that the only thing preventing the US from looking like the WALL-E future is the this condition). In the movie, the Axiom, the ship where humans reside, can be seen floating next to a nebula, presumably harvesting its massive number of resources. In addition, everything is automated. Robots literally do everything for people. People, not having to do any work are "devolving" into a state of obese, ignorant, bliss.

This touches on several theories. One, that humans are becoming too reliant on technology to give them everything and in the future we become totally reliant on it. There is plenty written about robots taking over, humans being turned into robots, robots turning evil and destroying humanity or harvesting us for energy, and all productivity being managed by robots for us to be aware of the danger of making too many robots. In WALL-E's world, all the robots, though intelligent, have a prime directive that prevents them from doing much besides what they were designed to do. But the point remains that reliance on robots for everything has never really been a thinkable solution. But people might not care for the sake of making life easier.
Two, that automated work will replace the human worker completely due to the increasing availability in the technology. Three, that people, not having to do anything for themselves, won't do anything for themselves and "devolve" as the movie suggests they will. Not only that, but there will be no motivation to change behavior. Currently, we are seeing a popular push for greener industry, healthier people, and less consumerism, predominantly in our generation. Things not only will change, but they are changing currently because we need to change to cope with today's problems. In the future, on the Axiom, there is a large deck completely devoted to waste. Giant robots scoop up the waste and dump it into space. Obviously, we don't know if space will ever run out of space, but the concept of the matter, that we are turning resources into waste and they will run out eventually, still remains.

The movie also shows a world devoid of thinking or spirituality. The population is not illiterate, but rarely reads anything that does not fall under daily routine. Pictures dictate most of communication, but words like "lunch" and "cup" and such are easily recognized. Everyone moves around in hovering chairs, never walking, absorbed in holographic screens in front of their faces, displaying either some form of television or video communication with other people. Meals come in what looks like slushie cups, eaten through a straw. People are so absorbed in eating, their holoprojectors, and their daily routine to even open their eyes to their environment. The people don't even know what the ship looks like for the most part. They only know whats in front of their faces. Love and marriage seem to be gone completely, yet must exist in some form for the population to sustain itself. Apparently its something that never gets past the bedroom. Religion is completely gone. While many would celebrate this, it is not only a sign in the elimination of diverse human thinking, but it is the elimination of open-minded thought about what is beyond the material world. Philosophy falls under the same category and is also non-existent. The human spirit has been all but crushed by time and the weight of consumerism. Friends seem to still exist, but the friendships are not substantial, given that life is not substantial, so there is nothing to really have a relationship about other than mutual interest in a sport or past time. In this sense, there is no motivation to do anything except what your belly says and what feels good at the time. Its almost as if we humans have been domesticated like animals. It is nothing short of disgusting to even think about.

Obviously, nobody wants to see this future. I am optimistic that we won't have to. It is clear that economic interests change as peoples desires change. People have been desiring a better society for some time. I think not only will we see a push for more spiritual and philosophical thought in our lifetimes, but a push for greener, more efficient industry, less waste, and more encouraging development in human thinking in general. Either way, things will change eventually, even if it isn't in our lifetime.
I think the majority of people still need to look up and open their eyes to the world even today. While someone not voting is a sin among my peers, only about a third of the country voted. Only one third of the country cares about who the president is going to be. I wonder how many of them actually read the news enough to know why it matters.
This movie is encouraging change now for the sake of the future. To what extent the authors intended, I'm not sure, but they certainly hit the nail dead on the head with the analysis they made of how things are going today.

From Chuck Colsen:

The fact that the hit movie WALL-E has a plot that even a child can follow doesn’t mean it’s juvenile. Released earlier this year, the Pixar film follows the story of a little robot named WALL-E. While the rest of Earth’s inhabitants have embarked on a 700-year cruise-like vacation aboard a space station, this little robot is left behind to clean up the planet.

As WALL-E sifts through the trash, he begins to learn what it’s like to be human. A Rubik’s Cube says something about the human capacity for logic and play; an old VHS tape of Hello Dolly teaches him about the human capacity for creativity. One hand-holding scene, which WALL-E plays over and over, teaches him about love.

The little robot continues, day in and day out, to do his task of cleaning up the earth, until a “female” robot, aptly named EVE, comes along. EVE, or Extra-terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator, is on a mission to see if the earth can once again sustain life. If so, humans can one day return to it.

Ironically, while WALL-E is trying to learn about what is to be human, humans adrift in the cosmic space station have grown robot-like, tethered to machines and out of touch with each other and their own creative impulses.

Many critics saw the film as an environmental movie. But while WALL-E has a lot to say about the stewardship of the creation, it is ultimately about much more. Filmmaker Andrew Stanton, an outspoken Christian, recently explained to World Magazine that what really interested him in the story line was “the idea of the most human thing in the universe being a machine, because it has more interest in finding out what the point of living is than actual people.”

“The greatest commandment Christ gives us is to love,” Stanton says, “but that's not always our priority. So I came up with this premise that . . . irrational love defeats the world's programming.” That’s why Stanton created WALL-E and EVE to work literally against their own robotic programming to demonstrate love, first for each other, and then for humanity.

In contrast to robots learning to love, Stanton wanted to show how humans had become machinelike. Our routines and habits, he argues, have programmed us “to the point that we're not really making connections to the people next to us. We're not engaging in relationships, which are the point of living—relationship with God and relationship with other people.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Another thing you’ll notice about the film is that all the humans are enormously obese. This was the result of Stanton’s imaginative logic of what would happen to humans as the result of living long term in zero-gravity conditions. But, Stanton told Christianity Today, it’s also what humans would look like when we become “big babies with no reason to grow up.” Stanton explains, “I was going with the logic of what would happen if you were in a perpetual vacation with no real purpose in life.”

Through the stark depiction of such perpetual laziness, viewers rediscover something that all of us can easily lose sight of: the value and beauty of meaningful work.

Sacrifice, love, logic, playfulness, creativity, connection, work—take some time this Christmas and let a little robot remind you what it means to be human, created in God’s image.

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