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Now is the time to revisit Wall-E, perhaps the finest environmental film of the past decade

A warning about unbridled consumption wrapped up in a children’s tale, Pixar’s film wasn’t intended as a political statement. But it’s powerful all the same.

Wall-E, a cautionary dystopian tale
Wall-E, a cautionary dystopian tale
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Every weekend, we pick a movie you can stream that dovetails with current events. Old, new, blockbuster, arthouse: They’re all fair game. What you can count on is a weekend watch that sheds new light on the week that was. The movie of the week for June 3 to 9 is Wall-E (2008), which is available to digitally rent on Amazon, Vudu, YouTube, and Google Play.

When Pixar released Wall-E in 2008, it was described as an “environmentalist parable” so often that director Andrew Stanton felt the need to disavow the label.

“I don’t have a political bent or ecological message to push,” Stanton told New York magazine. “I don't mind that it supports that kind of view — it’s certainly a good-citizen kind of way to be — but everything I wanted to do was based on the film’s love story, the last robot on Earth, the sentence that we first came up with in 1994.”

Whether or not Stanton “meant” it to be an environmental tale is irrelevant. Wall-E is the tale of a little robot left alone on earth to clean up after humans literally trashed the place, then took off for a comfy life in outer space, where their rapacious need for consumption has turned them into blobs who can’t stand and move on their own. (What happened to the poorer inhabitants of Earth is left out of the film, probably to make it suitable for children.)

Wall-E isn’t sure what to make of EVE at first
Wall-E isn’t sure what to make of EVE at first.

Meanwhile, Wall-E pushes trash and compacts it into cubes, until a glowing orb of a robot named EVE shows up and brings him to the humans’ outer space home, along with an organism that suggests Earth may not be done quite yet.

And with the planet’s future — and the living conditions of its inhabitants — on everyone’s mind following President Donald Trump’s announcement that the United States will be leaving the Paris agreement, Wall-E may be exactly the kind of movie we need to revisit.

Surprisingly enough, the film’s genius is probably due to Stanton’s assiduous efforts to stay “neutral.” There are no familiar slogans or symbols easily identified with a politicized notion of the environment anywhere in Wall-E. Instead, the film paints a pretty stunning picture of the deleterious effects of letting two things continue unchecked: a society’s insatiable need to consume (cheap products, entertainment, food, resources), and private industry’s drive for profit when it overtakes public good. (The ship on which the humans have escaped is wholly owned and operated by the same company — cheekily named “Buy n Large” — that ran Earth into the ground.)

Wall-E’s vision of the future is a cautionary dystopia wrapped up in a children’s tale, and a very funny and skillfully made one, too; the film’s first 40 minutes are virtually wordless, a masterpiece of modern silent filmmaking. Yet while we’re squealing over the cute robots, we can’t forget to imagine the world that gave rise to Wall-E’s trash-strewn wasteland and its more well-off humans’ disintegration into helpless, shapeless flesh globules who’ve lost the ability to create, think, or have real relationships. Futuristic science fiction is at its best when it makes us take a hard look at our own world.

Watch the trailer for Wall-E: