In an inverse Eden, a land laid waste, one works alone tending the trash. There are none like him in all the earth, inquisitive, playful and most drawn to those mysterious, dancing bipedal creatures who lost earth and left it to go wandering the vast wilderness of space. Humans have been driven from the earth by a flood of garbage, leaving in an ark designed not to keep them safe, but to keep them away. Only Wall-E remains, the last Waste Allocation Load Lifter – Earth Class.
As he navigates past derelict robots we realize that what separates him from the rest is his ingenuity and love of the earth. He has made a home, adopting the practices of humanity, he takes off his shoes, collects parts so that he may service himself and, most importantly, he rests. His rests are not the pragmatic powering-down kind, though he does that as well, his rest is in play. He collects doodads and thingamabobs and practices his dance moves, but he also takes time to study the numinous.
I was introduced to the numinous secondhand by the intellectual spendthrift C.S. Lewis, but the word was popularized by the German theologian Rudolf Otto. He defined the numinous experience as having in addition to the tremendum, the tendency to invoke fear and trembling, a quality of fascinans, the tendency to fascinate and compel. This numinous experience, however, is not impersonal, but there is a feeling of communion with a wholly other.
Wall-E demonstrates this yearning for the numinous in his nightly examination of Hello, Dolly, particularly that most visually ephemeral emotion of Love. He sees hand-holding, he fiddles with his own clunky hands, he records Cornelius and Mrs. Molloy singing:
It only takes a moment
To be loved a whole life long
Later he plays a snippet of the song as he stares into the night sky. Clearly he is looking for someone. He has friendship in the form of Hal the roach, but he has yet to discover that divine spark of love.
Wall-E is dirty, earthy, dozer-ish, like Adam, whose name means “earth”, he categorizes the objects he finds: spoon or fork, sometimes spork, like Adam naming the beasts. When Wall-E finds something new, a green plant, which at the end of the film becomes a tree of life, he places it in a boot. The boot is emblematic of man, for though Wall-E can dance, he and all other robots do not have legs so it makes sense that he combine the two, the tree and the man.
Then his world is set afire, he buries himself among the brimstones as heaven joins earth and his Eve emerges. She is a glorified being, adorned in white, dove-like out of the ark and egg-shaped, a symbol of life. She too is searching for something, she scans the earth to no avail. Her coming is terribly frightening for Wall-E, but he is irreversibly struck when she sets aside her robotic lifelessness and spins into the air, free and full of joy. It only takes a moment, the lovers of “Hello, Dolly” have sung, and Wall-E, true to his liturgy, falls as fast.
He woos her, carefully for her right hand is powerful, but her left hand, if he could just hold it… He shows her his treasure in his home, under the glow of Christmas lights. She shows equal interest and even a greater ability to penetrate the mysteries, she ignites the lighter, she solves the Rubix cube, but it is when Wall-E shows her his greatest treasure that adventure begins. Eve (an Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator) seizes the plant and becomes its protector. She holds the plant safely inside her, in utero. There are not yet any serpents, but for the garden to be reborn it will take both of them. Remember, this seedling is in a man’s boot and boots are made for crushing the head of serpents.
When the ship comes to retrieve her, Wall-E chases after her. They arrive at the Axion where Wall-E transforms everyone he comes into contact with. He is the agent of sacrificial love in the belly of the ship, a ship named after the principle that is accepted as true without proof. First there is M-O (a Microbe-Obliterator) whom Wall-E toys with until he breaks from the logic and unloving standard of robots.
He brings together two people, Mary and John, whose eyes did not see, but now are opened to the world around them. They meet the captain and the spidery Auto, that deceiver from the beginning, the former servant who has rebelled and taken control of the ship. The plant has been stolen and Wall-E and Eve are imprisoned. But in his brief meeting with Wall-E, the captain’s curiosity is awakened and he embarks on a mission to learn all that he can. He relearns man’s role in the world, he learns about the forgotten art of labor.
Wall-E knows something is wrong and once again flies to Eve’s rescue. She still thinks in terms of the cold law of her directive, but she is beginning to break free. To clamp down on this new freedom and individuality they label her defective and bind her heart so that it is subservient to the head. Wall-E, with the song Put On Your Sunday Clothes blaring, breaks out not only he and Eve, but also the other misfit robots, discarded and imprisoned. Given new freedom the multitude join him in their mission. And it is their mission, for though Wall-E initially started out trying to woo and win Eve, he has taken up her mission, he has become her helpmeet in preserving the new life of the earth.
They discover that Auto has taken the plant so that it can be jettisoned and he can remain in control of mankind. Wall-E saves the plant and returns it to Eve. At this point, they are united in a kiss of electricity, the divine spark of love. Their play spirals out and John and Mary, newly aware, find each other and are themselves united in this new spirit. Eve is able to get the plant to the captain who stands up to Auto. There is a fight over the plant, Wall-E and gang are branded rogues, the people are fearful of them, but he fights on their behalf. Wall-E is injured, separated from the sun he is weak and must return to the earth, but even in his weakened state, Wall-E gives his life for the people of the ship. Wall-E dies. He remains dead even though Eve repairs him, he becomes a mindless automaton, he’s lost personhood until his relationship with Eve is renewed and her love is declared in that sacred act of handholding.
Wall-E is a remarkable film. It is the first animated film, to my knowledge, to reproduce camera effects and the attributes of the human eye. There are shots of the sun washing out the camera, flares, camera zooms and racking focus, drawing our eye to the fore or background. That the movie perfectly incorporates how the human eye functions with camera lens flourishes embodies the movie’s message of humanity and technology seeing the world properly. On the ship the world is flattened and alien, rendered digitally clear in cold lighting. Its sterile and mechanically unreal visuals highlight the falseness of life on Axiom, whereas earth is warm, rich and hazy.
Director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, John Carter), using inversion, revision and conversion, draws on many biblical motifs in order to tell his story of a lonely robot fulfilling the greatest commandment of loving one another. At the end of the film, mankind has regained the role of chief caretaker, laboring alongside those misfit robots who no longer live under the law of their programming, but live in freedom and the wild joy of life.