Wall-E as a 1970s Science Fiction Eco-Disaster Movie

Wall-E is as delightful and enchanting as you’ve heard. At Metacritic it currently has a score of 93%; at Rotten Tomatoes, 96%. It enthralled the kids (including ours) who were at our showing, and entertained the adults.

It wasn’t until some hours after I saw it that I realized I’d seen the best 1970s SF eco-disaster movie ever.

In the 1970s, prior to the Star Wars bulldozer rearranging the landscape, there were a number of SF movies that took then-current trends, extrapolated them, and ended up with dark, dystopian futures. Three in particular, Logan’s Run, Soylent Green, and Silent Running, took as their premise that overpopulation and pollution would wreck the Earth.

As happens with pop culture over time, the three films have been rendered down to simple summaries. Logan’s Run is about people being killed when they turn 30. Solyent Green is people. And Silent Running, when it’s remembered at all, is all about Trumbull’s groundbreaking special effects, a follow-on to the work he did for 2001. But the three movies had a strong ecological message.

Logan’s Run makes it explicit in its opening text: “The survivors of war, overpopulation and pollution are living in a great domed city sealed away from the forgotten world outside.” The ecological consequences are all setup, though. The first part of the movie appears to be set in a groovy 1976 theme park, while the latter part is in the unsullied outdoors.

Silent Running is all about the environment. Plants have died off on Earth, and the only ones left are in giant terrariums attached to a freighter orbiting Saturn. When Earth orders the freighter to destroy the domes, Bruce Dern goes crazy and tries to save the plants.

In Soylent Green, overpopulation and resource depletion has led to extreme poverty in the US, with most people subsisting on the future equivalent of hardtack. Charlton Heston’s NY detective ends up in that most film noir of situations, the morally ambiguous man who becomes embroiled in someone else’s conspiracy.

How did Wall-E take the same kind of premise, a used-up and polluted Earth, and end up with a delightful family comedy? More than tone, I think it’s because of the movies’ different focuses. In all three of the earlier movies, the idea is key. Logan’s Run is about what would happen if people had to die when they were 30. Soylent Green is about what would happen if overpopulation and pollution made life miserable. Silent Running is about cool special effects.

Contrast that to Wall-E. Of the four movies, only Wall-E is focused on the characters. There’s a reason why reaction to Pixar’s movie has been OMG CUTE ROBOT SQUEEE! Wall-E has an engaging personality, which is astoundingly-well communicated only by his virtual physicality and an expressive array of sounds. More importantly, Wall-E’s story is a universal one of a lonely person looking for someone to love. The eco-disaster and its results are used satirically, and often played for laughs.

The focus on characters rather than idea is why Wall-E‘s environmental message doesn’t feel as forced. It’s not a polemic, and it’s not trying to convince you that it’s right — thank goodness, since the irony of a blockbuster summer movie earnestly saying “don’t pollute the earth” while its watchers eat tubs of popcorn and drink buckets of soda and buy Wall-E plastic toys and produce tremendous amounts of waste is enough to make heads explode.

The 1970s eco-disaster movies have not all aged well. Logan’s Run is mainly enjoyable as high camp, while Silent Running is turgid in that early-1970s-movie way. Soylent Green is still occasionally chilling, as in the scene where bulldozers scrape rioters off the streets and push them out of the way, and its detective story is of interest on its own. It’ll be interesting to see how Wall-E ages in turn. My guess is that, due to its classic boy-Armatron-meets-girl-iPod story, it will age well.

7 thoughts on “Wall-E as a 1970s Science Fiction Eco-Disaster Movie

  1. The first robot I can remember emoting on screen in such a way as to make the anthropomorphic leap was Number 5 on *Short Circuit* (though I always enjoyed the MST3k guys, they were more dialogue- than emotion-driven). Sounds like *Wall-E* is in that same vein (creating a character rather than relying on a stereotype like Disney did, with, say, Maximillian and even VINCENT and Old BOB in *The Black Hole*).

  2. Wall-E looks a lot like Number 5, and uses several of the same tricks to appear more human, most notably eyes/eyebrows that can raise or lower and thus show emotion. I remember liking VINCENT when I was little, but when I got older, I realized that they had cynically created him to ape R2-D2 while missing the very point of what made R2 so engaging.

  3. I was amazed at how much story and personality they could express with so little dialog. The entire first half of the movie has about 4 words in it. (Wall-E, Eva, directive, and classified–did I miss any?)

  4. I also thought WALL-E was modeled after No. 5. No. 5 even spoke with that same minimal vocabulary – “Number 5 Alive!”. I still thought the movie was great though.

Comments are closed.