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WALL-E and Utopia

by Ethan Tussey

by Gerry Canavan for IN MEDIA RES

In an era of ever-worsening ecological catastrophe, where can we still find hope? One interesting, if complicated, attempt to imagine an alternate trajectory for the future comes somewhat unexpectedly during the final credit sequence of beloved Pixar film WALL-E. In the film the familiar techno-utopian logic of inevitable progress and interstellar expansion into Star-Trek-style galactic paradise has been reversed: here, instead, the child-like janitorial robot WALL-E has brought the morbidly obese Americans of the future back to the Earth they once ruined, and robot and human together begin the difficult process of rehabilitating a global ecology human activity has completely destroyed.

WALL-E’s attempt to imagine a non-apocalyptic future is not (and perhaps cannot be) depicted narratively. Instead, it is represented through a suggestive montage showing some aspect of the new historical situation as filtered some artistic medium of the past—the sort of artistic media Pixar might consider its own computer-generated practice to have superseded, from cave paintings to Monet’s watercolors—blessedly cutting off with the landscape art of Vincent van Gogh in, one supposes, an attempt to avoid having to endure the many disasters of the twentieth century a second time.

The paradox inherent in this vision of ecotopia is clear: the montage sidesteps the question of how the generally hopeless ecological situation the film depicts (a hyperbolic, super-exaggerated version of the quagmire we find ourselves in) could ever actually get any better, finding recourse instead in a nostalgia that imagines this better future as a replication of the very historical path that led us into disaster in the first place. But something else is at work. The sheer oddness of the montage—the bizarre temporal juxtapositions, the anachronistic presence of robots at every stage of history—prevents this from being the bad-utopian fantasy of “return to nature” it might initially appear to be. The happy future interrupts both our broken present and our mourned past, promising something hybrid and genuinely new. In foregrounding the impossibility of imagining true historical difference, while insisting at the same time on the vital necessity of doing so, WALL-E pushes us unexpectedly in the direction of utopia, forcing us to think about what the radical singularity of a break from the nightmare of our actual history might entail, and to recognize just how desperately we need it. Here history, for a few scant minutes at least, becomes unfixed; the curse is lifted; another, better world is possible.

WALL-E and Utopia

Ending credits of WALL-E

from WALL-E (2008)
Creator: Pixar
Distributor: YouTube
Posted by Ethan Tussey