Fifteen years ago today, a little rust-bucket robot named WALL-E ambled his way into theaters, touting a story of hope in a world desiccated with man-made debris. The movie’s concern for consumerism, technological takeovers and environmental crises rang true as future worries back then, but they’re all the more salient now.
Last month, many parts of the US experienced the kind of dusty haze of WALL-E’s world due to Canadian wildfires. Drought and extreme heat is the new global normal. Twitter co-founder and former CEO Jack Dorsey recently commented on how the movie nails concerns over AI and evolving technology, saying that the film’s “out of touch” human characters represent “the future we’re driving towards.” It’s a film that has gotten a surprising amount of things right in its futuristic, sci-fi musings, so on its 15th anniversary, we’re looking back on what WALL-E got right and the things that it may have missed.
RIGHT: a failing (and aging) infrastructure
WALL-E, much like the planet he occupies, is rusted, dusted and just about busted, long in need of a refurbishment that no one ever made a plan for. Rather than take care of the growing waste problems, the powers that be declared it better to bail. They left robots out to roam the Earth, their purpose merely to condense trash rather than dispose of it. That blasé approach to waste management mimics our own reality of recyclables—or rather, how unrecyclable most things are.
WALL-E’s aged body reflects the kind of wear and tear allowed on some of our most valuable and necessary modes of infrastructure. Between bridges and ramps collapsing, as well as train derailments and chemical spills, we’re in a moment that sees the consequences of long-term inaction. The lovable robot may be sturdy, but the things he represents are increasingly fragile.
WRONG: a dry, dead planet
WALL-E’s characterization of Earth is as a deserted planet; not only is it free of people, but it lacks any sign of life. In one scene, the film shows a dock completely dried up, a massive boat still standing in the sandy wreck. Though extreme drought is becoming common throughout the world, one of the biggest threats of the climate crisis is a rising sea level. WALL-E’s home seems fairly New York adjacent (he passes a Times Square-style quarter of the run-down city, decked out with “Buy ‘n Large” digital ads), appearing as a formerly densely populated coastal city. As any New Yorker who’s been in the city during hurricane season should know, that kind of locale is more at risk for intense flooding than rapid drying.
RIGHT: the proliferation of virtual experiences
Between the Metaverse and the ubiquity of devices like Amazon (AMZN)’s Alexa and Google Home, people are in tune with the virtual world now more than ever. On board WALL-E’s Axiom, a luxury spaceliner-turned-permanent residency, community members can change their outfits with the tap of a screen, receive on-demand food and drink, and stay connected to whatever the ship has to offer 24/7. Whether that means people are streaming movies and shows, playing virtual reality games, or shopping with a rapid delivery service, life on the Axiom shares lots of similarities with our own contemporary consumer experiences.
WRONG: physical media
WALL-E charms as a character thanks to his affinity for nostalgia. He watches Hello Dolly on cassette and records songs with a few old-fashioned buttons on his cubic torso. He’s a collector, one who’s curiously drawn to outdated physical media—all of which miraculously works. The interest in the oldies isn’t what the movie gets wrong here (physical media is the last line of defense from oblivion, after all), but that detail of everything working just fine is. Take it from a writer who rewatched the film on a scratched DVD recently; if these things get damaged sitting on a shelf, how can we expect them to be okay after a near apocalypse?
(Plus, WALL-E plugs in an old, old iPod at one point, and we all know how reliable Apple products are after only a few years . . . )
RIGHT: self-driving cars need some work
There are plenty of gags that WALL-E pulls off concerning robots who can’t fathom straying from their pre-programmed paths—a la self-driving cars. Several times, WALL-E and EVE pull off tight merges onto a robo-highway on the Axiom, only for every other robot to miss that cue to brake, causing multiple major pile ups. That reaction time (or lack thereof) has long been an issue for self-driving cars, machines that can’t fully register the presence of emergencies and pull over accordingly. The stakes are clearly different between the movie and our reality, but the machine responses are largely the same.
WRONG: space travel timeline
WALL-E establishes a fairly vague timeline for the Earth’s destruction and the rapid innovation of space travel, aside from two major years. The events of the film take place in 2805, and the planet is abandoned in favor of the Axiom ship in 2110—less than 100 years from now. While there have certainly been great strides in space exploration in shorter periods of time, we still seem far, far away from having a massive, population-carrying spaceship, lido deck and all. Tourist trips around the moon are only in development, and those are meant to be round-trip, rather than the Axiom’s one-way. We’re in a new, privatized space race, but it’s one that hasn’t yielded the most promising results.
RIGHT: stopping the climate crisis takes all of us
The movie ends in a righteous human victory, as the largely disempowered captain of the Axiom wrests control from his 2001: A Space Odyssey-coded autopilot. He uses his authority to turn the ship towards Earth, a place where virtual worldly comforts don’t exist. The people on the ship are happy to return to their planet, to put in the hard work, and to get a little dirty to make things right again (even though the fabled “pizza plant” doesn’t exist). It’s a call to action, for those in positions of power to make difficult decisions that will ultimately benefit us all, and for the rest of us who are caught in a cycle of consumerism. Helping the Earth is not an easy task, but it’s something we need to prioritize. WALL-E was right about it then, and it still is now.