Creating A World From Scratch

WALL•E is a cautionary tale, with an intimate message for all

by Michelle Evans, July 2008


Sweeping vistas of a beautiful universe. We pass whirling galaxies and turbulent nebulae, frozen worlds and gas giants with fantastic rings. Finally, our own Earth, supposedly blue, green and wondrously full of life in the infinite and lonely cosmos. However, it is the 29th Century, and this Earth is not what we expect. The color is muted; yellows and browns predominate, the surface unclear through a haze of orbital junk. Diving through this detritus of an uncaring humanity, we see massive skyscrapered cities under a perpetual blanket of haze and smog. But the buildings seem different, not of metal and glass—something else. Closer still and we see they are giant columns of trash, neatly arranged to mimic human buildings.


There is no bustle of human activity within these garbage piles, but all is not a frozen tableau. One small bit of movement skidding along below us, merrily listening to strains of Put On Your Sunday Clothes from the ancient musical Hello Dolly. “Out there, Full of shine and full of sparkle, Close your eyes and see it glisten…”


This is the world of WALL•E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter • Earth class). He is the last robot on Earth, and his job it to clean up all the mess left over after humans abandoned the planet 700 years earlier. He scuttles along, grabbing a hunk of garbage with his mechanical hands and pulls it into his stout, square body, where his compactor compresses it into a nice, neat cube, popping it out to become another building block of these tall, massive faux buildings.


Good science fiction can be entertaining as it also gives us pause about some future based on our actions today. We’ve all heard the dire predictions of what could happen with all the waste we currently generate. Here we see a possible outcome where the Earth has been deserted so that a fleet of robots can clean up after us, hopefully to make the planet green and habitable again. WALL•E is the last of these robots, a lonely being with nothing for company except an armored cockroach and the things that WALL•E removes from the trash for his own edification. A Rubik’s cube, a spork, and a tattered video tape gives him a reason to keep humming along, learning the ways of long-gone humanity, and even what companionship and love must all be about.


The adventures of WALL•E, his meeting with EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator), falling in love and all that ensues from that emotion, are the heart of the movie that should prove to be this summer’s blockbuster. The minds of Pixar, who brought us Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and Cars, have now branched into the arena of science fiction, exploring our future where even robots can crave companionship.


I had the opportunity to discuss the movie with WALL•E screenwriter and director, Andrew Stanton. He told me of the origination of WALL•E. “There was this lunch we had during Toy Story, about ‘94, and we were batting around just any ideas of what we could think of the next movie could be. One of the sort of half-brained ideas was, ‘What if we did the last robot on Earth? Everybody’s left and this machine doesn’t know it can stop, and it keeps doing it forever.’ It was just the loneliest scenario I’d ever heard.”


Movie robots have a long history, going back to classics like the humanoid “Maria” in Metropolis (1926). It was not until Silent Running (1972) where robots took on a more functional look, possibly as a direct result of seeing NASA robotic space probes that were scattering across our solar system. In Silent Running, three small robots, called “drones,” are given the more fanciful names of “Huey,” “Dewey,” and “Louie,” by their lonely companion Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern). They assist him in tending the last plant life after Earth has become inhospitable —a theme very similar to what we see in WALL•E. The design of these drones led to the most famous movie robot of all time, “R2-D2” of Star Wars fame. However, WALL•E will give R2-D2 a run for the money in popularity, if this movie is any indication.


“Being a sci-fi geek myself,” Andrew Stanton told me, “I had come to my own conclusion that there are really two camps of how robots should be designed. I was very interested in going with the machine side [rather than the humanoid type], because, to me, that’s what is fascinating. There is some unique power to bringing a machine to life, [instead of those] that are designed to look like a character. I started to put that in the category of why we are so attracted to pets and infants, because I think there’s something appealing, where you’re kind of charmed by it, but it can’t communicate fully. You’re compelled, you almost can’t stop yourself from finishing their sentence. ‘Oh, I think it likes me.’ ‘I think it’s hungry.’ ‘I think it wants to go for a walk.’ This is really where my head was at for a long time. I think you pull from your own emotional exper-iences to finish the sentences. So it becomes twice as powerful.”


The heart of this movie is that WALL•E falls in love with EVE, and everything else flows from that. Even the message of ecological conservatism and overt consumerism are simply ideas that are generated as part of their love story. Stanton believes that emotions are the key to all life. “I realized that what I was pushing with these two programmed robots was their desire to figure out what was the point of living. It took these really irrational acts of love to discover against how they were built. That’s my theme: irrational love defeats logical programming. And I realized that’s a perfect metaphor for real life. We all fall into our habits, our routines, our ruts. And they’re quite often used consciously or unconsciously to avoid living, to avoid doing the messy part of having relationships with other people, of dealing with the person next to us. That’s why we can all be in a room and be on our cell phones and not have to be with each other.”


And that is what happens in the extreme when WALL•E hitches a ride into space to follow EVE, and finds the last bastion of humanity, holed up in a luxury cruise ship nestled in amongst some interstellar gas clouds. With everything in life taken care of for them, the humans no longer do anything for themselves, becoming slothful, obese, and uncaring of their present or future, constantly talking to each other only over video screens, even when the other person is floating in their hover chair just inches away. Sounds like an easy extrapolation of many of today’s trends.


At their core, though, humans tend to want to explore. We just need the impetus to do that, and WALL•E is there to do it for us. When WALL•E accidentally bumps a passenger off his chair, his video link disappears, probably for the first time in his life. It doesn’t take long for things to change. Seeing the stars for the first time and discovering that the entire universe is not just about when the next meal will be delivered, creates the almost immediate reaction of, “I don’t want to survive, I want to live!”


Fred Willard plays the long-dead CEO of Buy ‘n Large (BNL). His company can take most of the credit for the downfall of humanity, by supplying everything people could need. It is the ultimate resolution of Costco, 7-11, or Wal-Mart.


“If I was a kid and saw this,” Willard said, “I would say that this is what I want to stay away from. They say our kids today are getting fat. This would show me, as a kid, that you don’t want to be that way. You get up off your rear end and get out and do something. Now these poor people out in space weren’t able to do that. I think it should be a subliminal message to kids, who aren’t that aware of nature yet, that they have to take care of what’s there. You don’t want to cut down trees. If you build a house, leave the trees around your property. If you have to cut one down, plant another one. Stop paving over nice lawns and making parking lots.”


John Ratzenberger, best known as the know-it-all Cliff Claven from Cheers, and as voice talent from all Pixar movies to date, talked about a huge problem that is coming our way in the near future, a lack of skilled workers. “I created Nuts and Bolts We’ve set up summer camps for children to get back to working with their hands, because our infrastructure is going to suffer. We have enough attorneys, but we’re running out of brick layers, carpenters, welders. We’re going to suffer more for that than if we have one less attorney. In six to ten years, half the work force will be retired and there’s nobody coming up because we stopped teaching industrial arts at school.”


This is also true in technical fields such as engineering, math, and science. We may not be able to continue our outward exploration because no one will be left who knows how to dream, innovate, design, and build.


As far as the movie goes, it should be a must-see for everyone. The digital animation, especially the first half that takes place on Earth, looks more like live-action than anything I’ve yet seen. A favorite area for myself, is listening to movie music, and composer Thomas Newman has done a superb job at evoking feelings from many previous space films, from Jerry Goldsmith’s Alien, to John Williams’ Star Wars, and Alex North’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Newman’s work stood out for me throughout the whole movie.


NASA was a great inspiration for the animators from Pixar, specifically in the creation of the robot hero. Besides the direct lineage to Huey and R2-D2, we can also very clearly see Spirit and Opportunity, each still on their own lonely vigils roving Mars, precursors to having astronauts one day come and dust them off to set them in places of honor in the first Martian Museum of Early Exploration.


With that in mind, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab sent a robot or two to literally roll down the red carpet at the film’s Los Angeles premiere. From there, a JPL display is now a major part of an exhibit at the El Capitan theater in Hollywood, that will run through August 27.


Public relations has often been difficult for NASA, but getting involved in mainstream entertainment by working on the promotion of WALL•E, is a great new way for them to reach mass audiences, hopefully changing their standing amongst those who foot the bill, taxpayers, and their kids.


"Great ideas for future exploration of the universe start with the imagination," said Robert Hopkins, chief of Strategic Communications at NASA in Washington. "We hope that, with the help of our new robot friend WALL•E, NASA can encourage young people to learn about science and technology, and become the explorers of tomorrow."


Mark Zoradi, president of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Group, discussed collaborating with NASA/JPL. “All of us at Disney are delighted to be working with NASA in their educational and public outreach efforts to teach schoolchildren about space exploration, robot technology, and the universe they live in. WALL-E is one of the most lovable and enter-taining characters that Pixar ever has created, and he is the perfect spokes-robot for this program. Disney-Pixar's WALL•E takes moviegoers on a thrilling and imaginative journey into outer space, and now the film's title character will be able to stimulate imaginations further through these efforts."


John Ratzenberger summed up the soul of WALL•E when he said, “In this movie, even more so than about the skills, is about the heart connection, because it doesn’t make any difference how many video games you own or what kind of car you drive, at the end of the day it’s about being connected to someone.”