Pixar's film Wall-E, the story of robots who save humanity by teaching us to nurture the Earth rather than treat it as a disposable commodity, was generally acclaimed and won Best Animated Feature Film award (among others) at the 81st Annual Oscars. The film, however, instigated debate on Internet review sites. Respondents argued over its depiction of futuristic humans and whether their (animated) shapes made them baby-like or obese; they argued over its appropriateness [End Page 171] for young viewers given its environmental message and apocalyptic setting; they even argued whether the environmental message was paramount or whether the film was just a cute story about robots. That robot romance, however, is not ideologically neutral, as some respondents would seem to think. Wall-E exemplifies a problem not uncommon to sf: attempting to imagine the future, it nevertheless defines 'human' nostalgically.
The opening sequence of the film introduces this tension between future and past. As the 'camera' moves through (animated) outer space, moving eventually through our solar system to a futuristic, garbage-covered Earth, the images are accompanied by the song 'Put on Your Sunday Clothes' from the 1960s film musical Hello Dolly! (Kelly US 1969) – the song begins, fittingly, 'Out there …'. As Andrew Stanton remarks in his Director's Commentary for the DVD, 'juxtaposing sci-fi and the future with retro old stuff ' was a deliberate strategy. The film, however, understands 'sci-fi' as primarily setting-related. The main diegesis is some 800 years in the viewing audience's future, on Earth for about half of the film and then on the space-ship Axiom, where generations of humans have lived to escape the desolation of the planet caused by pollution. These temporal and spatial dimensions of setting allow for imagined technologies to play a major role in the film. The main characters are Wall-E (Ben Burtt) – a Waste Allocation Load-Lifter Earth-class robot – and Eve (Elissa Knight) – an Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator robot. In addition to these robot protagonists, technology serves all of humanity's needs on board the Axiom, from Autopilot who runs the ship to the hoverchairs that carry the humans everywhere.
The spectacle provided by various mechanical marvels might suggest that Wall-E uses the trappings of sf such as robots and spaceships without rigorously following scientific principles. The futuristic premise, in this argument, allows the animators the opportunity to create visual spectacle in the best Pixar/Disney tradition by imagining a variety of marvellous machines (of course, one could argue that this is typical of most visual sf). To give just one example, when Wall-E escapes the self-destructing life-pod and meets Eve on her way to rescue him, the resulting dance-in-space has more to do with visual spectacle than scientific possibility. Respondents on Gizmodo.com to Mark Wilson's review of the DVD release engaged in a debate about whether the plant (hidden in Wall-E's internal compartment but brought out at one point to show Eve) could have survived during this dance, but its exposure to space is just one of the many adventures it would be unlikely to survive – from Wall-E's inexpert replanting into a boot, to its trip from Earth to the Axiom, to the multiple occasions when it is thrown from one place to another. The dance-in-space sequence serves the purposes of animated film rather than of sf: it is a Fantasia (Algar, Armstrong, [End Page 172] Beebe, Ferguson, Handley, Hee, Jackson, Luske, Roberts Satterfield and Sharpsteen US 1940) moment that showcases the possibilities of animation and music. The length of the sequence is disproportional for the amount of narrative information it supplies (considered either in terms of plot or mood), making scientific plausibility secondary to the production of spectacle.
Scientifically plausible or not, Wall-E situates itself within a tradition of sf film through music, verbal and image allusions. The iconic music from 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick UK/US 1968) signals the significant achievement...