Mar 15, 2010
This is an essay that’s been rattling around in my cranium for a while and I’m posting it on a native plant blog. Well, in Wall-E, the human race is saved by a plant. The plant’s specific nativity is not the point. (We don’t actually know what kind of plant it is, but my money is on Algerian Ivy, given its stubborn persistence in all conditions, including the vacuum of space.) From the perspective of the people in the movie, the plant’s nativity is Earth, and so is theirs. Light-years from their home planet, the people have devolved into infantile and helpless creatures caught in a 700-year string of tedious, artificially-lit days that yield no joy or sorrow, no experience or sensation discernibly human. The people are lost to the earth and themselves.
There are many reasons gardeners cite for going native—save water, help wildlife, grow plants likely to thrive—and I agree with all of these, but, together they add up to maybe 1% of why I choose natives. I moved to the Bay Area in late 1994, so I have called it home for over a decade and a half. I always admired pretty gardens and pretty plants. But once I started learning about the plants that grow here naturally, only then did I begin to see this place, to be at home in it. Recognizing and knowing the plants as my neighbors and my hosts is what made me, as the late and very great Wallace Stegner would say, “a placed person.” Displaced for seven centuries, the people in Wall-E are re-placed because of the truth contained in a single plant. It’s easy enough, too, to see the ship as a metaphor for our modern lifestyle—plugged into machines and trapped in sterile indoor worlds.
A criticism that is often made of Wall-E is that it is powerful in its wordless first half but falls into action-cartoon stereotype in its second half, but I don’t buy this. The second half is the story, the hero’s journey if you want to go all Joseph Campbell on it. There are of course other themes at work, such as the film’s representation of love as light—think of the bulb that blazes into light at Eve’s touch and later doesn’t shatter when Wall-E compacts it, or the string of lights Wall-E uses to anchor Eve to himself—but fundamentally it’s a human-redemption story.
Wall-E finds the human ship midway through the film, obscured in a nebula, a not-unobvious metaphor for the mental and spiritual state of its inhabitants. The literally ungrounded passengers of The Axiom have so long forgotten their identity as embodied creatures that they can’t chew food, to say nothing of standing up and experiencing the simple pleasure of walking. They are admonished to “Remain stationary. A service bot will assist you momentarily.” Their entertainment amounts to sitting still next to a pool, or playing sports by controlling robot surrogates with a remote control. Even their wardrobe of identical jumpsuits is chosen by machines.
The idea of Earth, a tiny sample of which is brought to the gleaming ship by Wall-E, in the form of caked-on dirt and grime on his body, is so unfamiliar it literally sets off alarm bells, and sends an obsessive-compulsive little cleaning-bot on a mission to catch the offending visitor and eradicate the “foreign contaminant.”
Wall-E and his foreign contaminant, and his living plant, bring an element of chaos to the flawlessly streamlined ship. This starts to knock people off their machine-feed, turning their jumpsuits from cold and bloodless blue to vital, sanguine red, and causing the people to discover tools they’ve never known they had. Like eyes. “I didn’t know we had a pool!” “So many stars!” And hands. When two passengers inadvertently touch hands while pointing at Wall-E through a viewing bay window, we see that they are experiencing another’s touch for the first time; cut to the next scene, they’re splashing in the pool, likely the first playful human act in centuries.
Wall-E’s journey affects more than the passengers: fans of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest may see a bit of Randall McMurphy in Wall-E as he sets the defective bots free and inspires them to mimic his joie de vivre. But the most important impact is on the ship’s captain. As Wall-E had been programmed with the “directive” of compacting trash, and Eve the directive of scanning for signs of life, the captain’s directive, as the humans’ leader, is to take them back to where they all belong. When he proclaims “I don’t want to survive, I want to live,” we know he will do this, but it is the remnants of the home planet aboard his ship that impel him to start making the right queries. “Computer, define earth.” “Define sea.” (And unforgettably, “Define hoe-down.”) I defy any viewer to stave off goose bumps, and possible ocular waterworks, watching the scene where the captain whispers, “Computer, define dancing,” and the camera cuts to Wall-E and Eve in a glitter-tailed choreography outside the ship.
When I was a kid I loved 2001: A Space Odyssey. Dave Bowman’s journey into pure consciousness seemed exciting then, but these days I’m more concerned with the world of substance. Whenever I watch (yet another space adventure) The Empire Strikes Back, I’m always annoyed in the part where Yoda pinches Luke’s arm and scolds, “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter!” Luminous beings we may or may not be, but I can never help wondering just what this little green punk has against crude matter. I happen to like it. Yoda is supposed to represent the enlightened master, but I don’t think he’s as sharp as real-life monk and author Thich Nhat Hanh, who said, “The true miracle is not walking on water or walking in air, but simply walking on this earth.”
Near the end of Wall-E, the Axiom’s passengers tumble out of the ship’s chute onto bare earth, reborn, and they stand up and walk, feet on ground, crude matter on crude matter. I emerged from the theater euphoric and speechless, crying and laughing. I wanted to wrap my arms around the trunks of trees and sink my hands into the dirt. We need make no hyperspace journey across the galaxy. Our miracle is right here.