Why 'WALL-E' Depresses Me

Why 'WALL-E' Depresses Me January 14, 2009

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.

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  • Wow, very good points. At a glance, you would never suspect a movie based on a lovable CGI robot to be essentially more depressing than one with well… everything the Dark Knight has in it. A movie really should be judged on it’s truth value before anything else.

    Nick Keutzers last blog post..Erratic Conversation

  • Tracy Irvin

    I saw a little more hope in Wall E. I saw humans floating around in space, yet yearning to return to what is their natural environment. There is a correlation here, to spending eternity on a recreated earth. Humans were created to for life on earth, and we will spend eternity, not floating around on clouds with harps and halos, but in a recreated earth with community and culture abounding. One subplot, where the couple bump into each other and “discover” each other relates to the yearning to know our friends and loved ones in eternity and the satisfaction of true community in eternity.
    I dunno, maybe it was the nachos I ate before I saw it.


  • I was mostly just depressed how WALL-E turned into a feed-me, preachy After-School Special in its final half. The stuff with the burnt out earth and robots was great. The moral lesson? Borrrrrrrring.

    The Danes last blog post..20081119.ChurchLies

  • Let’s see, this gets it all wrong.

    The Dark Knight – a depressing film where the hero isn’t even allowed to be a hero and even when the villains lose, they win. The only bright side is humanity not destroying itself…and they even had to debate that.

    WALL-E – an uplifting film where even the robots show humanity and humanity itself is able to bring itself back from the brink of a kind of extinction with only a little bit of help after years of stagnation. The hero lives and the film even shows us how the world rebuilds itself during the credits. Depressing? Not on your life.

    Matts last blog post..Re: The "ABC" game

  • In response to The Dance, what was the moral of WALL-E? Something about not letting technology consume you? I guess that’s another thing it did not posses that the Dark Knight did: a real moral backbone to the story.

    Nick Keutzers last blog post..Erratic Conversation

  • um, sorry- the Dane

  • Ha! I definitely vote for “The Dane” to be called, “The Dance” from now on. More fitting, I think.

    Also, I don’t think Carissa is saying WAll-E is more depressing thematically… she’s saying it is less true to reality, and as such depresses her more.

    Imagine that you have two sons. One decides that he is going to work at McDonalds until age 40, and then run for President of the United States. The other gets a job at a factory, and wants to work his way up to middle management. Which one is technically more “hopeful”? The first, really. But he is so unrealistic it is depressing, whereas the other is more realistic and so brings more hope despite his less hopeful perspective.

    What does The Dance think about The Dark Knight?

    Ben Bartletts last blog post..To live quietly

  • @Ben – I really enjoyed The Dark Knight. I didn’t find it to be really all that depressing. Kind of like you reiterating Carissa, I found the more realistic attitude towards humanity pretty refreshing for this kind of show. The boat scene was a rather nice reminder that despite the propensity toward it, people are sometimes kinder than they need to be. Alfred’s comment that some people just want to see the world burn was rather well-played as well and carries a fair amount of realism-cache.

    And contra Matt, I didn’t see Batman not getting to be the hero. In fact, he comes off more the hero in The Dark Knight than he has in any of his cinematic endeavors. He sacrifices himself more wholly for Gotham and his ideology than he’s had to in the past and the film’s conclusion is a nearly note-perfect (the monologue may have been a trifle overcooked) expression of this theme.

    @Nick – WALL-E‘s moral is pretty much tacked on last minute to the much-better story about the robots and is pretty much just another saccharine overdose of pop American idealism.

    Get back to What Matters. Quit it with all the waste: ecological, social, and spiritual. Return to WALL-E’s world, which will of course replace the former world of Wally Worlds (Wally World being the cutesy nickname for Walmart). Choose love and society and relationship and caretaking over the mindless consumerism of the past.

    The message is good and fine, but its delivery overhanded.

    They had this great movie going and then somewhere along the line remembered that it would be marketed to children and somehow our culture has had it drilled into its subconscious that stuff for kids must have pedagogical value. Offhand, I’ll point my finger of blame at Wertham.

    The Danes last blog post..20081119.ChurchLies

  • Mink

    Uh, Carissa, what did you expect from Disney/Pixar? If you write a sonnet, it follows the rules of a sonnet. If you make an animated film for kids for Disney, it’s going to follow certain rules too. Like not ending all bleakly post-apocalyptic or terribly revealing about the ghastliness of the human condition – whatever the truth in that may be. Wall-E follows the same old formula, but with some wit and charm and really cool sound editing. Certain givens just have to be accepted from when your Netflix envelope arrives. If you don’t like the formula, take to task the whole Disney emporium or something…or don’t, because that would be more boring than this post of yours, however far-fetched I think comparing The Dark Knight to Wall-E may be.

  • @Mink – I think there are some animated Disney films that notably stray from formula. At least enough to be considered apart from their oeuvre. Though both end somewhat happily, neither The Incredibles nor The Jungle Book go to particular pains to pretend that the future is going to be an unblemished happily ever after.

    When Mowgli retreats from his legacy and throws himself into an uncertain-yet-hopeful future, the non-child viewer knows that he’s leaving fast friends for a new world fraught with pain and heartache as much as it’s filled with potential for joy and fulfillment. As a high-schooler, I would shout “No! You fool!” as Mogli falls drunkenly into the vixen’s trap, as she plainly seduces him not for who he is but for what he can gain her. When a guy picks a chick [he doesn’t even know] over his buddies, something’s gotta be wrong…

    When we leave the Parr family at the end of The Incredibles, they are no longer par (or average). We know their secret and they have found some sort of compromise between being themselves honestly and hiding their true selves for the sake of their identities (ironically enough). From the final shot, we see that despite their renewed bond of family and the hope that through teamwork they’ll be able to overcome new adversaries, that new adversaries will continue to plague them. They are confident sure, but in the end, their future is left up to hopeful speculation (it’s entirely possible that Dash dies five minutes after the credits role).

    Contra this, WALL-E ends in unmitigated optimism. As is typical the Disney formula you cite. Blech. An optimism unearned is a hollow venture. This is why I had absolutely no problem with the overflowing joy and optimism for the future we were greeted with in the finale to Slumdog Millionaire. It fit and it was well-earned by the demands of the story itself.

    The Danes last blog post..20081119.ChurchLies

  • Mink

    The Dane, how interesting that you should name my two favorite Disney movies…

  • Well, seeing as how they’re easily among the Top 5 Disney movies, wasn’t that almost a foregone conclusion, Mink?

    The Danes last blog post..20081119.ChurchLies

  • Carissa

    Sorry I haven’t had a chance to respond to everyone’s comments–it’s been a killer week.

    In response to Mink: sure, it’s impossible to look at a film without certain genre expectations and conventions. But you can choose which genre standards you want to evaluate it by. So, for the moment anyway, I look at WALL-E as part of the post-apocalyptic genre, rather than as part of the Disney/Pixar genre. I think, overall, I’m resistant to using target-audience as my primary genre for viewing things, even though I know that’s how studios and publishers primarily conceive of them. Maybe that’s WHY I resist it. I think it’s a higher compliment to Disney/Pixar if I don’t dismiss the flaws in one of their films simply because it’s at least partially intended for kids. I think it’s a tribute to the strengths that WALL-E does have (namely, the first half hour, which I’d happily watch over and over again) that I’m able to view it according to the standards of the post-apocalyptic genre.

    I agree with The Dane (yep, this is a historic moment) that it’s not the happy ending that’s the issue so much as the fact that that happy ending is there to serve an agenda, rather than being inherent to the story itself. It’s kind of like Aaron Sorkin movies and TV shows: I often agree with the guy’s politics, but I can’t stand how he beats us over the head with them. WALL-E is much more subtle than Aaron Sorkin, I’ll give it that.

  • @Carissa – Huh, apart from your Christmas post and a tangential Slumdog comment, I can’t really remember disagreeing with you. I mean, you’re no Ben Bartlett, I’ll tell you that.

    The Danes last blog post..20081119.ChurchLies

  • Mink

    @The Dane: There are 5 top Disney movies?

    @Carissa: It seems unfair to lump “partially intended for kids” and “Disney/Pixar” together. Disney has a remarkably comprehensive branding strategy, and there are plenty of movies directed at a similar audience to Disney’s that don’t fit the Disney “formula”.

  • @Mink – There are:

    1. The Incredibles.
    2. The Jungle Book.
    3. Beauty and the Beast.
    4. Sleeping Beauty.
    5. Nightmare before Christmas.

    Though, Nightmare is only there because I was desperate for a fifth film. There isn’t a clear frontrunner for the fifth position so I juggled Snow White, Atlantis, and Monsters Inc. and Nightmare just fell out. I’m only very confidant in my Top 4.

    @Rich/Ben – This would be a good Top 5 list for your next (?) podcast.

    The Danes last blog post..20081119.ChurchLies

  • Mink

    Sleeping Beauty? Uh, how did you distinguish that from Snow White?

    And, as you surely know, #5 is highly debatable, seeings as Disney put it out under Touchstone because they feared it would be a little too dark and creepy.

    Like I said…

  • @Mink – Storywise, Sleeping Beauty, is certainly rather slight. What puts it into the realm of greatness is the art. Far and away the most visually intriguing and innovative film that Disney ever attempted, Sleeping Beauty defies child-friendly formula through its arresting sight-cues rather than its storytelling devices. Even the film’s character design, while being its weakest artistic front, still stands out amongst Disney’s films as being something special.

    As to Nightmare‘s debatable status as a Disney film, I agree. For the similar reason, I have a hard time thinking of Pixar’s films as being “Disney” either. And though they handle American distribution for Ghibli, the Japanese company is so far and away a better producer of animated stories that I can easily think of five films by the brand that are better than anything Disney’s ever attempted.

    The Danes last blog post..20081119.ChurchLies

  • Carissa Smith

    Mink, maybe my sentence structure was confusing. I thought you were excusing Disney/Pixar on the grounds that WALL-E is an animated film for kids, and I was saying I don’t think that should be an excuse. Long week . . . can no longer make sense.

    The Dane, isn’t it a miracle when anyone agrees with you? :) I think it’s safe to say I’m generally more likely to agree with Mink, but then she and I have a long and glorious history of disagreement over Pixar movies.

    Another difference between Snow White and Sleeping Beauty: the female protagonist’s singing voice and how long one can listen to it without running screaming from the room. Also, Maleficent is pretty much the best Disney villain ever. And the whole pink/blue aesthetic conflict? Love.

    My top 5 Disney films:

    1. Beauty and the Beast
    2. Fantasia
    3. Fantasia 2000
    4. Sleeping Beauty
    5. tie: The Little Mermaid and Robin Hood (and maybe Pete’s Dragon)

    Yep, I like the ones with the best scores (in my humble opinion).

  • @Carissa – Nah, people agree with me all the time ^_^ It’s just that the disagreements are so much more fun and so much more vocal that they become more memorable.

    Annnd… I think you’re right. Maleficent is the very best of Disney villains. Actually, most Disney villains ring pretty hollow. Gaston is just a big nothing. Prince John is more pitiable than anything. The Wicked Steps are mere obstacles. Hook? Ursula (the Maleficent knock-off)? Scar? Bah, I say!

    Of the remainders, I really do like Shere Kahn. He has the right mix of raw power, regal hubris, and sinister nobility to make a good villain.

    I never caught Fantasia 2000. I really like the idea of the Fantasia movies, but I rarely have the imagined patience it would require to sit through a dialogueless film. For the same reason, I rarely watch Daft Punk’s Interstella 5555, even though it’s beautifully imagined and conveys a moving story. In theory, i should be watching it once a year or so. But I don’t.

    The Danes last blog post..20081119.ChurchLies

  • @Carissa – And also: I just thought of it. You probably disagree with me when I accidentally call you Clarissa. I don’t mean to make you angry when I do this.* It’s entirely subconscious.** You’re just so good at explaining it all that I cannot help myself.

    * Well. Maybe I do. Just a little.
    ** Unless the immediate above is true.

    The Danes last blog post..20081119.ChurchLies