An imaginary, cartoon robot has the potential to change our behavior in a big way. Or instead, it may just provide air-conditioned, popcorn-scented relief from the summer heat in multiplexes across the United States, where viewers won't give a second thought to the mountains of trash on a ruined planet the titular robot cleans. For a film so moving, the second scenario is less likely.
For those who have missed the reviews, a summary: WALL-E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter, Earth-class) has been left on Earth to toil away, constructing skyscrapers out of garbage heaps that have made the planet uninhabitable. As he wades through seas of trash with his cockroach friend, he picks up artifacts of human life, like lighters, a spork, and a Rubik's Cube, which he takes back to his nest to admire while watching Hello Dolly—the only instruction he has in the ways of human courtship. When a female robot named Eve lands on the planet to search for vegetation, lonely WALL-E is immediately smitten and latches onto her spaceship when she blasts off with the only remaining plant on Earth.
Eve takes WALL-E to a spaceship where the humans wait out Earth's cleanup in a fully automated dystopia, subsisting on fast food provided by conglomerate Buy & Large, which is blamed for the pollution of our planet. Accustomed to traveling on hovering chairs, the humans no longer walk and have become obese. They communicate through computer screens even when they are a foot away from each other, and robots (which are, of course, more humanlike than the humans) wait on them hand and foot. It's up to WALL-E and Eve to save the humans from themselves and make Earth a sustainable place to live again, while falling in adorable robot love.
For a children's movie, WALL-E is dark. With themes of human extinction, malevolent corporations, and destruction of the Earth, it is very much a kids' movie for grown-ups, who made up most of the audience at the showing I went to yesterday.
I am most curious, though, to see if the PG set will take to the film's message. Will seeing WALL-E make kids more likely to recycle in the school cafeteria, or plant sprouts, as the kids from the spaceship do as their first act on Earth? Will seeing the frighteningly obese humans of the future make a kid more likely to play outside rather than in front of the computer, to avoid a similar fate?
Certainly, we won't have a movie to thank if the tide of global warming turns, but WALL-E's intention was perhaps to plant the seed of green and healthful living in kids who will be enthralled with the charming story of two robots in love.
Or not. Pixar is trying to distance itself from the film's green message, with director Andrew Stanton telling reporters, "I don't have an ecological message to push. I don't mind that it supports that kind of view. It's certainly a good-citizen way to be, but everything I wanted to do was based on the love story."
Others say that WALL-E's green message is hypocritical, since the company will be pushing WALL-E toys, clothing, and other landfill-destined items to the tune of an expected $30 billion profit. At least, with the film's antifast-food message, there will be no Happy Meal promotion.
WALL-E isn't the only film this summer riding a green trend to the box office: M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening is another dark vision of our eco-destructive future, except in his film, the Earth fights back, with the trees spreading a virus that causes people to kill themselves. It isn't expected to gross as much as WALL-E, which dominated with a $62.5 million opening weekend, but the success of both indicates that we can look forward to many more green films to come.
That's great for us, because films do change behavior—the most oft-quoted example in Hollywood lore being Clark Gable's omission of an undershirt from his attire in It Happened One Night, causing undershirt sales to plummet. Despite his obvious lack of sex appeal, WALL-E has a chance to make us take little steps toward preventing his fate—throwing plastic bottles in the correct trash can or even just spending more time away from the computer (or movie) screen.