Uncovering the Subversive in Wall-E

Wall-E.jpegFew of the reviewers of Wall-E I read noticed the film’s deeply critical and socially relevant underlying message. Most focused on the Hollywood summer-film story of love and happiness—here between a sloven waste compactor and a svelte extraterritorial robot. I saw a wake-up call to a society that has become so unquestioning of its immersion in a consumerist, technocratic culture that everyday life shows many signs of addiction. The first step in recovering from addiction is to acknowledge your dependence on whatever controls you. But in order to do that one has to step outside of the familiar and reflect on the consequences of your habit. Often it takes a shocker to do this. Reflective awareness can also come subtly and subversively. Ron Dreher, writing a review of the movie, Wall-E, in a conservative blog, Crunchy Con, says “Philosophically, this is one of the most subversive movies I’ve ever seen.” His not-so-hidden critique focuses on technology as the addiction.

Technology emerges as a villain here — but it’s a complicated villain, as I’ll explain. Technology allowed for the development of the consumer economy, and the creation of the fantastic spaceship [the Axiom] that allowed humanity to escape an earth it despoiled with technology. But technology also shaped the consciousness of the humans. It led them to break with nature (Nature), and to think of technology as something that delivered them from nature. As humanity became more technologically sophisticated, the film argues, they became ever more divorced from Nature, and their own nature. They developed a culture and society that was mechanistic and artificial, versus organic and natural (the grotty little Wall-E robot is an instructive contrast with the sleek, ultraclean robots on the Axiom). Consequently, they’ve become slaves of both technology and their own base appetites, and have lost what makes them human. They can’t even talk naturally to each other. Two people lying on lounges next to each other communicate via computer. People on the Axiom live their days moving around from mindless entertainment to mindless entertainment. They are the perfect consumers.

The critique itself was not surprising to me as I have followed the same path in my book. Seeing it as political can lessen its universal potential impact because politics has become a black and white, zero-sum game these days. Dreher says of the film that it “argues that rampant consumerism, technopoly, and the exaltation of comfort is causing us to weaken our souls and bodies, and sell out our birthright of political freedom.” I see the film more as an existential comment probing beyond politics, exposing what we are doing to ourselves at the level of being. In any case the film is remarkable and a must-see. Having struggled with the process of putting these same ideas in a book, I am both jealous and awed by the extraordinary power of visual parables and film to tell the same story.

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greenguy said:

Thanks for picking out this review from so many that completely missed this critical side of the film. Maybe it was so stunning that professional reviewers never got beyond praising the film for its cinematic accomplishments.