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  • Going Beyond Our Directive:Wall-E and the Limits of Social Commentary
  • Ann F. Howey (bio)

In the director's commentary for the DVD release of Pixar's 2008 film Wall-E, Andrew Stanton states, "I didn't have any agenda" when making the film; he wanted to tell a story about a robot that kept doing its job long after the humans who created it had vanished. The choice of trash compacting as the job, however, required a back story—how robot and trash got there—which led to an imagined dystopic future for our planet. One consequence of that dystopic future setting is that, whether Stanton wanted to deliver a "message" or not, the film has been received as "an environmental cautionary tale," to use reviewer Stephanie Zacharek's term. This environmental message, which Shawn Levy argues "is more explicit than anything in any previous Pixar film," might be desirable in an age where cities (Toronto comes to mind) have been known to truck garbage into neighbouring countries to find room for it, but not all viewers received it that way. Although many reviews and online comments treat the narrative of the film as the classic boy-meets-girl love story, the "cautionary tale" aspect of the film triggered widely different ratings and debates on online sites. These debates draw attention to the ways that Wall-E—considered as object of young people's culture, as text, and as theatre experience—is implicated within its own critique: its science-fiction conventions (robots programmed with "directives") raise questions about the way humans are "programmed" through education and consumer directives, but, as an "ecological fable" (Stevens)1 targeted to younger viewers and as a media product distributed by Disney, the film itself has been accused of attempting to "program" its audiences; moreover, the environmentalism promoted by the film is contradicted by its own position as consumable object and limited by its vision of environmental solutions.

Genre conventions and traditions of science fiction facilitate the engagement of Wall-E with issues [End Page 45] of consumption and programming. The creation of a future world through extrapolation from current conditions is a common practice in science fiction; in Wall-E, contemporary anxieties about garbage disposal and over-consumption are extrapolated to create a compelling visual image when, in the opening sequence, the camera gradually reveals the towering skyscrapers of garbage that cover the Earth. As I have argued elsewhere, the setting of the film roughly eight hundred years from now means that futuristic technology provides part of the visual spectacle of the film—an opportunity to showcase Pixar/Disney strengths in animation—but it also allows the film to engage in science-fiction tradition by exploring the relationship between human and machine.2 That relationship is, ultimately, one of similarity, with the robots able, in Stanton's words from the director's commentary, to "bring humanity back to itself"; one of the greatest similarities between humans and robots is the possibility of their being programmed, and the need to go beyond such programming. The robot Eve introduces the issue when she inquires of the robot Wall-E, "Directive?" Since one of the most striking features of the film, as reviewers such as Zacharek, Levy, Dana Stevens, and Jenni Miller note, is the lack of dialogue in the first part of the film, "Directive?" stands out after the beeps, clicks, and other noises used by Wall-E and a cockroach (the only two inhabitants of Earth prior to Eve's arrival) to communicate. Directives generate many of the action sequences of the film (since different robots have opposing directives), but the implications of following a directive—what one has been programmed to do—are a central thematic concern of the film, particularly as they address human consumer practices.

Consuming Objects, Consuming Narratives

With Wall-E, there are two types of consumption at issue: the consumption of objects, the consequences of which are the towers of garbage shown in the film, and the consumption of texts or narratives, performed within the film as Wall-E watches Hello Dolly! and performed in the acts of viewing and interpreting Wall-E itself. Both kinds of consumption...


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