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Weighing in on WALL-E

Posted Sep 07 2008 8:37pm

by Carly Keidel

I recently saw the new Disney movie "WALL-E" after hearing very positive reviews from several friends and A.O. Scott, a film critic with whom I tend to agree. This case was no exception; I think "WALL-E" is a great, powerful piece of entertainment. But this blog post is not about my personal movie taste, but rather, the film's commentary on obesity and society.

"WALL-E" tells the story of a robot whose life's work is to compact trash and clean up planet Earth, which can no longer sustain life due to the severe pollution and vast build-up of material waste caused by human beings. While the robot, named WALL-E, tries to clean up Earth, humans are living in resort spaceships in the great beyond, basking in comfort as machines cater to their every whim. People have been aboard "Executive Starlines" for hundreds of years now, and are accustomed to a life in which they rarely have to lift a finger: they spend 24 hours a day floating on mobile chaise-lounges, while robots zip all around them, cleaning, serving liquid meals and desserts, providing digital entertainment and communication, and disposing of the trash. And oh, the trash. Trash is a big theme in this movie, both as a visual motif (think skyscrapers composed of wall-to-wall compacted material goods) and as the cause of mankind's downfall.

Some critics, such as those from Slate and Gawker, have slammed the film for blaming the Earth's decline on obese people. My understanding of the movie pointed to a different cause and effect relationship: People left Earth because it was filthy and overrun with scraps. This build-up of trash was due to widespread excess and overconsumption of all kinds: big cars, big houses, big closets, big toy chests, and big entertainment systems. Consuming too much and recycling too little on a global scale rendered the planet uninhabitable. People were shuttled into space by a fit and trim spaceship captain. Over the course of 700 years in space, everyone - babies, adults, and even the ship's crew - became obese as the result of technological progress that enables, even directs, people to live ultra-sedentary lifestyles and drink endless supplies of liquid calories all day long.

Another criticism of the film is that obesity is the result of personal laziness. Again, I just don't see it. "WALL-E" promotes the argument that obesity is the result of technological progress making most human activities - such as walking - obsolete. Why scrub the floor when a robot just arrived to take care of it for you? Why stand when you can sit? When technology switches the default behavior from labor-intensive to labor-free, and the majority of people follow the default, does that mean people have become lazy? Or are they merely in sync with the times?

Where WALL-E does warrant criticism for its commentary on obesity is in the film's portrayal of obese people as infantile. There were several moments in the film during which I cringed at the depiction of obese people as helpless, under-stimulated, physically indistinguishable from one another, and wholly dependent upon machines for basic self-care. But even here, I think the film attributes obesity not to personal failing or lack of responsibility, but to the toxic environment that drives overconsumption and under-activity from the earliest stages of life to the end.

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