Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Truth of Wall-e

I'm not sure how the writers got the storyline of Wall-e past the Disney marketing execs. If you haven't seen the movie, I won't spoil too much of it for you.

Here's the premise: One giant superstore has taken over every aspect of life on Earth. Its products result in so much garbage that humans have to be jettisoned into space for what is supposed to be a five-year, supersized, automated luxury cruise while robots at home compress the garbage into neat cubes and stack them up into garbage towers.

It takes the robots a bit longer than expected to clear out all that garbage, though, and the space cruise is still cruising 700 years later. Aboard the ship, humans over the generations stop walking or moving or interacting directly with each other. They become almost boneless, brainless, and blob-shaped. It was starting to remind me of an especially bleak J.G. Ballard or Ray Bradbury story, but Disney-ness, thank God, kicks in eventually and saves the day. That made me feel good.

I came out of the movie theater into a vast parking lot lined with big-box stores. I looked around and noticed that nearly everyone was obese, including the children. They struggled up into their Chevy Trailblazers and Ford Expeditions, panting. Although the endless asphalt glittered with heat, I shivered.


Orchid64 said...

I haven't seen Wall-E, but I've heard the basic concept. The problem with the concept is that it does not jive at all with human psychology. The truth is that hardship, hopelessness, and despair is what is creating obese people who seek to anesthetize themselves with cheap and meaningless entertainment.

Those who can devote themselves to lives of luxury (generally those who are wealthy) tend to engage in creative work or risk-seeking behavior, they don't sit around getting fat and being lazy. People like Richard Branson and even (shudder) Paris Hilton are proof of that.

If robots ever were able to look after all human needs and we had endless time to look after our more important interests, people would almost certainly become healthier, happier and more creative, not devolve into blobbish babies on an orbiting pleasure cruise.

I weary of the pessimistic and endlessly negative observations of humanity which postulate that our preferred state is to sit around and consume whatever is easiest. It's based mainly on cynicism and a narrow view of human behavior which is not supported by psychological facts.

The reason this troubles me is that this sort of story makes humans think less of themselves and each other. It encourages us to hate ourselves and believe that our nature is a weak and ugly one. We tend to live up (or "down") to expectations of ourselves and others and this sort of cynical view only serves to feed our self-doubt and limit our capacity to grow.

Liz Stone Abraham said...

@Orchid, wow, what an incredibly well crafted argument. There's so much to consider in it. But I still think that we, humans (despairing and comfortable), are drowning ourselves in crap. This doesn't apply to everyone of course—not to even mention huge portions of the world where people just want something to eat—but on the whole. I fight with my desire for more stuff every day.

Orchid64 said...

It's a battle you can win. I don't desire "stuff" at all. On the rare occasions when I feel the impulse to buy something (and it's pretty rare - maybe 1-3 times a year tops), I realize that I'm depressed, bored and feeling empty and trying to fill it with the wrong thing and the desire goes away.

I used to "hunger" for things, but that is simply not with me anymore. I sometimes miss the passion I felt for some great new "toy", but I know that actually having the toy will not bring me any great pleasure and the desire for that feeling vanishes, too.

This was a cognitive journey I made as my priorities changed. I didn't fight my impulses, but rather found that they went away as I changed. Ultimately, I believe that we seek the wrong things for a variety of psychological reasons and in consumerist cultures, a big part of that is our identity which we build around "stuff" because we don't form it via community, spirituality, creative outlets, or work. When you find comfort in those places, the "stuff" desire will go away.

I know that sounds all zen, but I'm far less "at peace" than that statement may indicate. I have my difficulties and I suffer (mainly with issues of self-worth), but I can say that if we were unshackled from a lot of the things we hate and are designed to make us feel inadequate and fill us with self-loathing and if we were free to do what we love, we'd blossom, not become self-destructive.

Jeremy said...

This was a great post, Liz, followed by some great comments from orchid64.

I've seen previews and trailers for Wall-E but definitely didn't suspect that the movie was this deep... I'm actually kind of interested in seeing it now.

Marta said...

I don't have the energy to get into the more interesting comments left by orchid64, but when I watched Wall-e, I wondered about the overweight people in the audience with me, and I wondered what they thought and felt at seeing obesity portrayed on the screen that way. Granted, tons of movies have negative images of fat people, but this was not just one character but the entire human race.

I've watched movies where all the woman were twits or horrors or easily killed, and I know that I feel slightly sick afterwards. Seems like it is way too easy for films to make jokes about fat people--even though obesity is a problem...

no, I really don't have the energy to continue this train of thought today, but I'm glad you brought the movie up.

Liz Stone Abraham said...

Thanks for all the great comments.

@Orchid, I think that you have reached a stage of enlightenment that I am not close to yet. Although I have been largely successful in limiting the amount of extra things that I buy, I still have stuff lust. What's interesting is that I don't tend to buy things when I'm feeling low or bad about myself. I buy when I'm in a good mood. Hm.

@Lin, yes, I can see how overweight people would feel singled out and humiliated by the movie. But I think it's worth mentioning that the people aren't portrayed as bad. Rather, they are kind-hearted, hopeful, and heroic prisoners of their ancestors' mistakes. I think that it was necessary for them to be fat to fully play out the overconsumption theme. I left the movie theater feeling self-conscious about my overconsumption of goods. I couldn't help but picture my closet at home bursting with clothes and shoes, and my medicine cabinet stuffed with expensive cosmetics, our basement filled with power tools, and the workout equipment in our family room--all destined for the landfill one day.

It made me want to shuck it all off, or give it away. But of course, I didn't.

Anonymous said...

I just realize that I commented under the wrong name--an unreal name, in fact. Maybe you could tell? I don't know, but it didn't mean to.

And yes, I thought it wasn't a mean portrayal, and the people were all nice--wanting walle to succeed and such--and this is an issue worth bringing up and facing and whatnot, but it still had to make a few people shift uncomfortably in their seats.

Anonymous said...

I feel you are going a little overboard here.

Yes, people are getting more and more overweight by the day, but the way you wrote your commentary, especially as you gazed at your fellow movie wathers and their children (shivering with disgust and contempt), seems so above it all. As you wrote later, we are all guilty of overconsuming (or most of us) some people just wear it on their bodies. I prefer to see the good in people and not to look around at my fellow Americans with such an air of (seeming at least) superiority.

[Full disclosure: I am 5'5" and weigh 160, a size 12.]

I am teaching a seminar on science fiction this fall, the premise of which is that sci fi has largely been consumed by a kind of obsession with Darwinism...where are we going? How will we get there? (and of course, where did we come from?) And it often seems to turn out that the machines represent a future evolutionary state. I thought this movie was interesting in that regard. And it was fun. It was trite, yes, that the humans in the end had some hope for their future, but I thought the two robots had even more hope. I envisioned little WALLe and Eva's running around soon....

Anonymous said...

woops, meant "watchers"

Liz Stone Abraham said...

@Bella, I was shivering with a sense of foreboding, not "disgust and contempt." And my subsequent comments show that I don't feel "superior" or "above it all."

I'm sorry that I offended you, but I am pleased that you are taking the time to read and comment on my posts.

Anonymous said...

Liz, I live in surburbia, I attend movies in these exact venues you do. I have seen overweight people in a variety of places, riding in SUVs and other types of vehicles, every day of the week.

I have NEVER seen anyone "struggling" to enter their vehicle. I have NEVER seen anyone "panting" just from the effort of getting into their car.

The truth is, your email at least was dripping with contempt and disgust. I doubt you saw the things you found pleasing and self serving to write that you saw (namely, the struggle to enter an SUV, or the panting). You should perhaps just admit where you have been self serving and judgemental in your zeal to feel superior...but maybe you lack the ability to do so.

Liz Stone Abraham said...

"...A growing segment of our society has zero ability to grasp satire, and while I don't think the New Yorker needs to cater to the teeming, uneducated masses out there, it's a shame that their cover is actually feeding into people's fears rather than illuminating how silly they are."

Those are your words, Bella. Did it make you feel good to think about the "teeming uneducated masses"? I assume that you have an advanced degree, if you are teaching college.

We all judge. To pretend that we don't is a conceit.

Feel free to have the last word here, because I won't participating in this conversation any longer.