Cartoon Apocalypse

by jzornado

Save us from ourselves, Wall-E

It’s 2012, and we are fast approaching the latest apocalypse deux, at least according to Mayan calendar aficionados.  It reminds me of the most recent (of many) back in Y2K.  Other prophets have warned us the end is nigh (or is it Nye?) but they and their predictions have come and gone, as will the latest Mayan prediction for reasons that go beyond the scope of this meager blog post.  Suffice to say that these faux-Casandras distract from real threats that face all of us even as they stand as symptoms for some greater sense that, well, things just ain’t right.

As varied and diverse as culture and religion tend to be in this world, there is something in us that loves an end.  Since I began reading—and now writing—speculative fiction (more on what that is in a minute) I have come across what I’m calling the “speculative tradition.” I’ve written about that already in a previous post, “What is the Speculative Tradition.”   What I will say here is that the speculative tradition in fiction and film is not necessarily a western thematic, for the Mayans had it too, and the Hindu tradition comes complete with an end of the world story, as do other traditions and cultures.  I’m interested in the western thematic because that’s where I live.  Be that as it may, the “speculative tradition” has been, like so many other global cultural traditions, taken up and given a particular spin by western culture going back as far as Plato on the one hand, and the Book of Revelation on the other.

I think it is important to note here that that though speculative fiction can also be described as science fiction, science fiction is not always speculative fiction.  Science fiction includes the heroic romance—as in the case of Star Wars–where as speculative fiction of the sort I am talking about takes up a cultural discourse motivated by critical questions like,  “How will we then live?” which is another way of asking the question, “how do we live now?”  Implicit in the question is that there is something most decidedly wrong with the status quo and pursuing its path will result in catastrophic disaster.  Suffice to say the speculative tradition takes a dark and disturbing turn in the twentieth-century, around the time of the great wars as well as at the beginning of the environmental movement of the 1960s and Rachel Carpenter’s environmental warning, Silent Spring. 

Perhaps Orwell’s vision is the most consistently dystopic, the most bleak, and the most depressing writer within the speculative tradition.  Even today, I would argue, it’s difficult to find a story as uniformly hopeless (and important) as 1984.  As a result, the dystopic fiction and film of the later twentieth-century is usually alloyed by the promise of hope—the latent feature of the Christian mythology rises again, like the ghost from the machine to save the day—from Neo in The Matrix to the miracle birth at the end of Children of Men, the contemporary speculative tradition looks into the existential abyss and blinks, pulls back, and offers us a blast of hope from the past.  To sell tickets, we have to be told again and again that the proverbial phoenix will, finally, rise from the ashes.

Even as the dystopic warnings about the impending apocalypse (or is it the apocalyptic warnings about the impending dystopia?) continues to vie for our attention—consider the hysteria around Y2K and now the Mayan 2012 purported apocalypse—we hold utopia and its dark twin in our collective consciousness like two sides of the same dream coin.  Consider for a moment the enduring popularity of Star Trek franchise.  Star Trek in all of its many iterations  is a prominent example of the utopic in contemporary speculative fiction, and its popularity demonstrates the pervasiveness of the utopic-born-of-human-reason mythology, that is, the representation of a future world in which the human colonization of space is the great fruit of humanity’s conquest of war, hunger, political strife, and so on.  I think it is worth noting that the future Star Trek imagines partakes of both the utopic and the apocalyptic, for on the one hand we learn that some how human beings, along with technological innovation, has put an end to human suffering on earth after a devastating global war in the early twenty-first century.  From here, the phoenix rises, and the rest is all warp-drive.  Note how our “re-birth” apparently justifies the conquest of other civilizations for we’ve “perfected” ourselves and so we have something to offer the less evolved species out there.

I want to focus finally on a recent film that is a unique example of the Speculative Tradition—Pixar’s Wall-E (2008). Wall-E is a narrative torn between two visions.  On the one hand, the film invites the young and old into the charming vision of a post-apocalyptic Earth buried in garbage. Along with the image of the City awash in waste, the film offers up short scenes that do little to explain the back-story about why things have turned out so badly for humanity.  We’re left to surmise that we simply consumed too much, wasted too much, polluted too much.  It all rings true, at least at first.

“Buy ‘n’ Large” represents the film’s serio-comic condemnation of the Wal-Mart/corporate/consumer culture run amok.  The first twenty minutes or so of Wall-E make it clear that corporate entities like Buy-n’ Large are bent on ruling humanity for their own gain, even if it means killing the world in the process.  This critique of corporate power is implicitly present in the opening half of the film on earth as well as the second part of the film on the Axiom, the  “Buy-n-Large-Love-Boat-City-in the Sky.”

At work in Wall-E remain all the dominant themes of the Speculative Tradition, with special emphasis on what concerns us in the present moment figured as a vision of the future:  beware, the film tells us, of over-consumption, pollution, environmental collapse and the fall of human civilization.

Wall-E is also a buddy film, a romance, a love story and a meditation on the desire to reach out and touch—and love—and perhaps regain–what we’ve lost.  What, according to Wall-E, have we lost?  The film makes it clear: in the not too distant future we lose the Green World, the world of Eve, the world of Life; we lose the Garden.

In case you missed it, let me summarize it here:  Wall-E the robot’s mission is to clean up the City (civilization) and as he attempts to fulfill his programming he also collects (or perhaps hoards) human memorabilia from a dead past.   His collection of yard-sale items is a symbolic representation of what he’s lost and what he longs for—love and connection.  His only access to community is through material items—junk that can only stand for what he longs for, like the video of Hello, Dolly!  All are substitutes for the real thing, but not the real thing.   It is both ironic and pathetic that Wall-E’s desire for love can only be obliquely addressed through his hoarding of junk, and his desire for a relationship with a robot that looks suspiciously like an iPod.  In many ways it is a sly commentary on the emotional roots of addiction even as it pushes our buttons to feel nostalgic for all-things Apple.

Wall-E is going in two opposite directions at once.  On the one hand, the cautionary vision of Wall-E, especially the first twenty minutes, represents one of the most poignant, devastating speculative visions since the spate of dystopic films from the 1960s and 70s.  On the other hand,  Wall-E is for children and so there has to be a happy ending, and plenty of consumer products that go along with the film.  And so, like so many other films influenced by the dystopic yet bent on selling tickets and junk, the film invites us to stare down into the abyss of environmental apocalypse, but then look up as if looking in offers an inoculation against such a vision. The film’s solution to the end of life as we know it is as ridiculous as the problem is overwhelming as the film imagines it.  Suffice to say that by the end of Wall-E, the “phoenix” rises from the ashes.  Eve finds life, Wall-E finds Eve.  Humanity returns to Earth.  Life goes on. See you next time.

But who among us would, if we were the denizens of the Axiom,  prefer to return to a life of toil and hard labor when all our work is done for us by a willing crew of self-correcting robots?  By the end of the film it’s as if we’re being thrown out of Paradise all over again, but this time in reverse.  The Axiom appears to be a perfect, self-sustaining habitat.  Why return to a world still overrun by pollution and garbage?

The ridiculousness of the film’s final scene and dialogue–when the Axiom returns triumphantly to Earth–allows for the child in the audience to take away a hopeful message—but finally, the ending makes no real sense, for it violates the cautionary message established most vigorously at the outset of the film.  We’re told by the end that the infantilized, obese inhabitants of the Axiom want to leave their spaceship-home-utopia in which robots tend to their every need and whim for the hard toil of agriculture in a barren and garbage-covered land.  It’s absurd, it’s comic, and it’s almost certainly a sell-out.

Perhaps the ending of Wall-E is a satiric plot-device meant to allow the cautionary dystopic message to exist just under the thin veneer of saccharine glaze.  Or perhaps it’s all just a device to sell popcorn and computer games.  After all, it’s just a cartoon apocalypse. No need to panic.