Sunday, July 20, 2008

Life as meaning in narrative, for metal and fleshy creatures

This weekend I saw Wall-E, an animated film by Pixar, in which a small brave-little-toaster like robot, Wall-E, saves life on earth. Humans, lead by the Buy N' Large company have consumed all of earth's resources and by the year 2110 decided to leave the planet a literal waste-land of trash and tour the solar system on a cruise while "Wall-E" robots clean up the mess. 700 years later, Wall-E is still doing the job crushing trash into cubes and stacking these into mountains. However, the little robot collects various other inanimate objects of interest who are his friends, along with an indestructible cockroach that survives by eating twinkies. Out of the trash Walle also finds a film of humans dancing and singing in live action. This little piece of recorded life becomes the narrative by which he recreates the living world through meaning.

A robot named "Eve" lands on the wasteland of earth in search of a plant specimen, evidence that it is possible for the humans in their cruise to return. Eve, who looks like an egg with computer screen eyes, is given the plant specimen which Wall-E has found. She then shuts off, impregnated by the plant, until a pod from the mother ship comes to get her. Wall-E chases after her, inspired by the old film recording of humans holding hands. He too longs to recreate this vision.

On the ship, humans have become nearly indistinguishable from inanimate objects, except that they are the lords and the metal robots are their slaves. The captain of the human race eventually comes into contact with dirt which inspires him to look up "earth" on his computer. Tapping into the narrative of life, he finds meaning in his existence, just like Walle already has done. Together, with Eve, they manage to return the plant specimen to earth and, in the process, come to life.

The film is a creation story in which all beings have the potential to live, if they are inspired by a narrative to LIVE. Like the book, The Giver (Lowry: 1993), living is a not simply continued existence, but the ability to see life through the inspiration of a narrative. One could call this tradition. The Giver was written before computers and robots became a central focus of American life, yet the message is very similar. Walle is a creation story because it is about the beginning (or re-starting) of intelligent life. It contrasts with other animated films like The Brave Little Toaster (Disch: 1980, Rees: 1987)) and Toy Story (Lasseter: 1995) because in those works the inanimate objects are already animate, as are the people; the conflict is that they live in a world in which people do not see or recognize the meaning in their not-so-fleshy lives.

Wall-E discusses the idea that the difference between "humans" and "robots" is really one of life and narrative, not of shape, size, or body type (metal versus flesh). Metal creatures can be "human" by way of meaning and narrative and fleshy bodies can achieve a state of in-animation much like objects. Life itself, as discussed in Walle, is about meaning. After all, within the world of animation, computer generated images, like drawings, animate into meaningful narratives. Perhaps the real issue here is the perceived divide between the "real" world and the "virtual" world. In Wall-E's (animated) world inspiration came from a recorded live action film set in the real world. The reverse of this would be real world people deriving inspiration about life from an animated "virtual" film.