SPOILER WARNING: This post discusses the endings of both WALL-E and The Dark Knight. Since I probably saw both of these films later than anyone else on earth, I’m assuming this won’t actually be a problem.
I like depressing movies, particularly depressing post-apocalyptic movies. Children of Men made me very, very happy. The Road was probably my most-anticipated film of 2008 (and, no, that didn’t work out too well for me, since it still hasn’t been released). So why is it that I actually find WALL-E, a G-rated, animated film, more depressing than either of the above?
It’s not the robots, whose antics I greatly enjoyed. The answer, I think, has to do with WALL-E’s schizophrenic combination of pessimism and optimism about human nature. When humans first show up, a good half-hour into the movie, the harsh satire of our technophilic, wasteful culture begins. The scary thing about the future depicted in WALL-E, supposedly 700 years from now, is that it’s just a slight exaggeration of current trends. Humans have left earth because it’s become covered in garbage, causing toxicity levels to rise to the point that life is no longer sustainable. The puffy, bloated humans living in space zoom around in hoverchairs because it’s easier than walking. They consume all their food as instant drinks. Instead of talking to the human beings surrounding them, they direct their conversations to floating heads on virtual screens. In other words, it’s all a little too close for comfort.
I get the point. I’m an avid recycler, I walk rather than drive whenever I can, I try to limit my consumption of packaged and processed food, and I refuse to use a cell phone. I even read Wendell Berry. I’m the type of person who’s supposed to like WALL-E, right? But, for some reason, WALL-E’s cultural critique strikes me as being mean-spirited rather than incisive—it’s directed at easy and obvious targets. There’s also the fact that while the movie tries to end hopefully, its optimism rings false. The pessimism is all too grounded in reality, while the optimistic ending seems grounded in nothing except the need for a happy ending.
Director Andrew Stanton has said that he wanted the physical appearance of the humans in WALL-E to resemble that of babies, to symbolize their helplessness, but also their hope for a new start. Call me crazy, but I see little hopeful in humans starting over again. Even if they should happen to survive the first six months back on earth (as the closing credits suggest they will) and rebuild an agrarian society, won’t they eventually just reach the same point all over again? Granted, history isn’t entirely without cycles. Civilizations rise and fall, as do the moral standards within those civilizations. But humanity as a whole starting all over again? That’s just depressing, because, without God’s grace, we’re destined to decline and fall as before.
A 2008 film supposedly darker than WALL-E struck me as more grounded in truth about human nature, and therefore more genuinely hopeful: The Dark Knight. Yes, the whole premise of the Joker’s character is that even heroes and “white knights” can be corrupted. And they can. We all can be. But we also all can, through God’s grace, choose better. Human nature is depraved, but it isn’t just depraved, because we are created in the image of God, after all. Because of God’s general grace in creating humanity good, we can all, Christian or non-Christian, choose virtuously. Christians have additional help in being transformed into Christ’s perfect image, but there is some extent to which God has instilled the potential for good in every human individual.
This remnant of our unfallen state shines powerfully in The Dark Knight, even as the Joker tries to work his worst deeds of chaos. Harvey Dent may fall, and crowds of Gothamites may take up the Joker’s challenge to assassinate a tattle-tale, but there’s that great scene where hundreds of people choose to die, rather than to take the lives of others. You know the set-up: it’s one of those life-boat scenarios from philosophy class. There are two boats, one full of convicts and one full of “innocent” civilians. The Joker tells them that there’s a bomb on each boat, and that each can make the choice to detonate the bomb on the other boat; otherwise, both boats will blow up at a set time. Even though the dilemma is fairly formulaic, you’re completely caught up watching it unfold. After all, the movie has already killed off Bruce Wayne’s one true love, so who’s to say that it won’t blow up a whole boatload—or two—on screen? You tense up when the convict tells the guard it’s time to do what he should have done ten minutes ago, seizes the detonator . . . and tosses it into the ocean. Two cheers for human nature! Then the civilian on the other boat discovers that he can’t bring himself to blow up hundreds of people, criminals or not. Two-and-a-quarter cheers for human nature!
Though simple, this scene is powerful in showing both the depravity and the created nobility in human nature. The Dark Knight also gets more complex in its treatment of morality, depicting a hero’s lapses as well as his ultimate self-sacrificial decision to let everyone think that he’s the villain. Ultimately, the film’s pessimism and optimism about human nature are both rooted in the character of Batman/Bruce Wayne. He is flawed, he makes some terrible decisions, but he still can choose to act for the good of others.
Ultimately, I think the biggest difference between the depictions of human nature in WALL-E and The Dark Knight is that WALL-E takes the typical romantic view: human beings are inherently good and are only corrupted by external forces—like technology and “civilization.” Remove those corrupting influences, and we can be good again. (It’s a little more complex than that, given that it’s WALL-E, a robot, who reminds human beings that they need to get off their virtual walkie-talkies and connect face-to-face. But WALL-E accomplishes this not because he’s high-tech—in fact, he’s woefully obsolete compared to the film’s other robots—but because he’s a repository of humanity’s more noble impulses, a relic that preserves the good from humanity’s past.)
In contrast, in The Dark Knight, civilization is corrupt because human hearts are corrupt. Even those who are trying to cleanse Chicago—ahem, I mean Gotham—of organized crime are capable of doing dastardly deeds in pursuit of what they think is the good. While WALL-E’s biggest villain is a largely de-humanized corporation (Wal-Mart stand-in Buy n Large), The Dark Knight asks us to wrestle with our internal villains, our own desires for power and glory and revenge. “So where’s the hope in that?” you may ask. It’s only once we recognize our own sinful urges that we can be changed—and we can change society—for the better, in true humility. If evil is externalized in some institution, then we will continue blind to how we commit murder, adultery, etc., in our hearts. We’ll think we can separate ourselves from evil simply by refusing to support a certain institution. (And I’m not just talking about liberals boycotting Wal-Mart here—the Religious Right has done the same thing, just with different institutions.) True hope for change is grounded in admitting our own corruption, the impossibility of keeping ourselves entirely clean, and calling on Jesus to save and heal us.
Of course, it’s rare that a movie will depict that last step, so I’m just encouraged whenever I see a film that takes the first step of confessing our own evil desires. It makes the darkness a little brighter.