Our family had a rare trip to an in-theater movie on Sunday, as opposed to watching one of the many movies we see at home. It was a good choice for the theater, WALL-E, with its sweeping scenes of dance in outer space and the counterpoint of its portrayal of robots with minimalist, but very believable emotions.
It’s a delightful movie for children or adults, but the adults are more likely to squirm as they see characters depicted in lounge chairs with drink holders, more similar than they might like to see to the audience sitting in now extra-wide theater seats with holders for 44-ounce cups. The story shows how a culture of excess consumption, with little regard for the environment, community, or meaningful activity, ultimately destroys a livable earth and nearly, the people themselves.
The plot hinges on the robot Wall-E’s discovery of a living plant, either the last to survive massive environmental destruction, or perhaps, the first to signal a possible recovery of the planet. He and another robot, EVE, protect the plant until it re-energizes humankind to save the planet they nearly destroyed.
It reminded me of James Thurber’s The Last Flower, a graphic novel published in November 1939, two months after World War II began. I haven’t seen the parallel mentioned elsewhere, but it seemed surprisingly close to me. In Thurber’s story, we read:
One day a girl who had never seen a flower chanced to come upon the last one in the world…The only one who paid attention to her was a young man she found wandering about. Together the young man and the girl nurtured the flower and it began to live again.
In only 48 cartoon frames, Thurber talks about wars, which never end, and the causal factors of greed, intolerance, the inability to understand others, and a fetish of violence. He also describes human and environmental destruction in both words and pictures. There is a deep pessimism in the seeming inability of people to maintain a respect for life or to find common ground, but also optimism, in the refusal of the flower to disappear entirely.
WALL-E presents a happier, less complex position. Some of the causal factors are there, but WALL-E’s world seems to have eliminated wars and racism. And although humanity has come close to a final disaster, the plant that WALL-E and EVE nurture appears to redeem it once and for all.
Thurber’s plant, unlike WALL-E’s, has a flower, which holds the promise of reproduction, as do his (non-robot) people. It is essential that the plant have a flower, which is visited by a bee, because biological reproduction in all its messiness is integral to the rebirth of Thurber’s world. WALL-E offers a vision more akin to Coca-Cola commercials about holding hands around the world. I liked WALL-E, but seeing it gave me a new appreciation for what Thurber managed to do using much simpler technology, but a deep insight into people and life.