The end of the year can be a bit depressing. It’s dark, grey, the holidays are nearly over and the rest of winter awaits. Luckily, this evening Wall-E has nudged me back onto the right track.
I thought I understood the message of this beautiful film about a little robot that saves the garbage-covered Earth of the future. It’s all about environmentalism, right? But then I remembered a conversation I’d had with my sister – we both go gooey-eyed at the thought of Wall-E, but for rather different reasons. Almost unconsiously we realised that Wall-E is about much more than looking after the planet.
I should clarify that my sister and I are superficially very different, one tall and one short, one an artist and the other a scientist (roughly). But we both loved the film when it came out in 2008. We got hold of the DVD as fast as we could, and then we sat down and watched it together.
At the beginning of the film you’re introduced to Wall-E’s home, where he keeps a collection of interesting objects he’s gathered while tidying up the planet. As I watched Wall-E struggling to decide whether to put a grubby spork into his spoon collection or his fork collection, and eventually placing it equidistant between the two, I said rapturously: ‘he’s a scientist!’ At almost the same moment, when my sister saw Wall-E’s beautiful artefacts, she said, ‘he’s an artist!’
It was a light-bulb moment for me (a bit like when Wall-E meets Eve later on). I realised why I love this film so much – it’s not about art or science. It’s about both, about the wonder that drives people to understand the world in many different ways – the endless varieties of art and science. (Obviously the love story between Wall-E and Eve is quite important too).
Wall-E is a little scientist, collecting and categorising interesting things he finds. Not because they might be useful or because he understands their purpose, but because he doesn’t – he is curious and open-minded. Eve, on the other hand, has a clear Directive. Her job is to find plant life. She knows exactly what she’s looking for, but she doesn’t know why. It takes the combination of Wall-E’s curiosity and Eve’s single-mindedness to make a brilliant discovery: Wall-E recognises that the plant is interesting, and Eve shows him why.
This to me is a nice illustration of how I think science should work. You need endless curiosity and interest for the ‘unknown unknowns’, but to make practical progress you also need a clear goal and a plan. Luckily for the future of humanity, Wall-E and Eve find each other and together they are more than the sum of their parts.
But science isn’t everything. The other side of this wonderful film is about beauty (in my opinion). Wall-E recognises beauty and shows it to Eve, and together they bring the obese future humans with them. There are some really touching moments when the humans finally look out of their spaceship window at the stars, and realise how beautiful they are. And when the captain’s curiosity is awakened by the plant that Eve brings back to him, he explores Earth through the ship’s computer, and is blown away by what he learns (‘computer, define “hoedown“…’)
I know I’m making a lot out of a film about a cute robot. But I think this movie is nearly perfect. It’s beautiful and it hits all the most important notes without fuss, and almost without dialogue. Art and science are just words for something people do all the time – try to make sense of the world and how to live in it. I might have to make this film a New Year’s day tradition – a perfect antidote for post-holiday cynicism.