Loading

Parables in Pop Culture: How WALL-E Reflects Ideas Later Presented in Pope Francis’ Laudato Si Nicole antonelli

There are many ways that one can define a parable. However, all definitions are similar at their most basic core, which allows for flexibility and specifications depending on the specific parable in question. Paul Ricoeur describes a parable at its most basic level to be a balance between will and imagination that reorients us in a specific direction (281). Our will allows us to follow the ways of the parable, and our imagination permits us to see the world in a new way. Parables also abound in many different forms, such as spoken word, essays, films, and music. By comparing two forms of a similar parable, strong connections can be made that allow us to use slight imagination to see main ideas that attempt to move us in a certain direction, like Ricoeur describes. It is then up to the will of the individual if they are going to follow the ways of the parable. In retrospect, the 2008 film WALL-E serves as a prophetic/parabolic device that brings to light the lack of environmental consciousness that Pope Francis later expands upon in his encyclical, Laudato Si, in 2015.

Laudato Si is a lengthy document with numerous sections, but it can be summarized as a call to care for our common home. Pope Francis describes the issue of rising consumerism and throwaway culture (par. 16) in which a lot of waste and pollution is produced (par. 21). These byproducts have negative effects on health and biodiversity (par. 33). Humans attempt to fix this environmental degradation with technology, which creates further problems, as people forget to communicate and love one another (par. 47). Once he thoroughly explains and details these issues, Pope Francis begins to describe why it is our duty to solve this problem due to the teachings of the Bible. He argues that humans believe that they have absolute power when really it is a mutual relationship between man and nature, and that it is God’s earth (par. 66). In order to fix these issues, Pope Francis asserts that we must learn to love our earth and communicate with one another in order to move to action (par. 164).

The film WALL-E utilizes many cinematic techniques that Sikov describes in his Film Studies textbook to emphasize the need for humans to take better care of the environment, a specific plea that can be described as parabolic in nature and reflects the main purpose of Pope Francis’ Laudato Si. The opening scenes consist of wide shots of a vast space, which we come to figure out is Earth. There are giant trash piles everywhere, looming into the sky just as high as the buildings. With these numerous wide shots and zooms on the trash piles, the camera movements make it clear that the trash is widespread throughout the Earth, hinting at a throwaway culture that Pope Francis describes (par. 16).

Next, it is revealed that the humans created this mess as we begin to see the red and white Buy & Large ads everywhere, indicating a heavy consumer culture that produces a lot of waste. This is also hinted at by the dark lighting, suggesting an abundance of pollution. An ad begins playing, where the owner of B&L explains that the humans will be going on a spaceship called the Axiom while small robots called WALL-Es (Waste Allocation Load Lifter: Earth Class) will clean up the mess. He states that “Space is the final frontier!” implying that the humans do not care about the Earth.

When we are introduced to WALL-E, the main character, and seemingly the only WALL-E left on Earth, he is instantly relatable. Even though he is a robot, he has human characteristics that allow us to identify with him. This anthropomorphism is a cinematic technique that lends to the parabolic nature of the film and makes the issues presented seem more relatable and real. For example, he accidentally rolls over his friend, a roach, and instantly freaks out that he hurt him. Also, he collects items that he finds in the trash, creating a strong contrast to the humans who threw away these items presumably because they didn’t see worth in keeping them. However, WALL-E is excited with each item he finds and holds each one dear, indicating meaning and significance, a quality that Pope Francis argues is vital to human nature (par. 84).

One day, WALL-E finds a small plant (it is merely a sprout) growing out of a boot. The camera effects emphasize how momentous this is, with the sprout in focus and WALL-E’s wide eyes behind it, slightly out of focus. This technique may also bring attention to the parabolic nature of this film and the lesson that all life is important, including plant life on Earth. This moment also suggests that condition of the Earth is so poor that a single sprout is extremely rare and awe-worthy. WALL-E guards this plant throughout the film, emphasizing the lack of biodiversity on the Earth that Pope Francis warns us about in Laudato Si (par. 32).

Another main character in the film is EVE (Extra-terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator). She arrives on a huge spaceship in bright lights. The lighting can create a parallel to biblical stories, as if she is ascending from the heavens. WALL-E is instantly drawn to her. In one shot, she is even reflected in WALL-E’s wide eyes. She is shown in many shots scanning the land, and once again, these wide shots make clear the destruction brought about by the humans. WALL-E follows her around, desperate for a connection. But when he accidentally drops a rock and makes a sound, EVE tries to shoot him! However, since WALL-E cares about her, he doesn’t give up, and continues following her. The music also highlight's WALL-E's love, as La Vie En Rose by Louis Armstrong plays in the background. The song’s title can be translated to “Life in Happy Hues”. WALL-E’s perserverance is a strong contrast to the laziness that the humans exhibit later in the film, emphasizing the desire for human connection that Pope Francis claims is truly lacking in society (par. 47).

The choice of the name EVE is interesting in the context of the film as a parable in relation to theology studies. In the Bible, Eve, the first woman, is created of the rib of the first man, Adam. God tells them not to eat of one specific tree in the garden, but EVE is tempted by a serpent and eats the fruit, and eventually shares it with Adam, committing a sin (New International Bible, Genesis. 4-24). The EVE in this film seems hostile to WALL-E, who can be compared to Adam and just desires to be her companion. When she shoots, it seems like she is rejecting WALL-E, and can be interpreted to be a bit selfish, as Eve from the Bible seems when she chooses to eat from the one tree God forbids. When EVE gets stuck to a magnet in the film, she gets so frustrated that she blows the whole ship up, suggesting the human individuality/superiority and lack of human relationships that Pope Francis claims to have caused the issues with the Earth. (par. 66). A cinematic technique emphasizes this idea - there is a shot of WALL-E trying to get closer to EVE, with lots of fire in the background, indicating failed human relationships.

The use of the film Hello, Dolly! and it’s accompanying music plays a significant role in shaping WALL-E into a parable. In the beginning of the film, before WALL-E meets EVE, he watches the film, and is especially interested in the scene where the man and woman are dancing together and holding hands. He even tries to hold his own hands, and it is clear that he desires human connection that is severely lacking in this society, the same lack that Pope Francis warns about in Laudato Si (par. 47). The film also creates a sense of nostalgia for the viewer, that can instill a feeling of love for Earth and for others, which drives home Pope Francis’ idea that lifestyle changes and stronger relationships are needed in order to achieve this harmony in society (par. 164). When WALL-E later brings EVE to his home, a blurred close-up shot of their faces reveals that the same scene from Hello Dolly! is playing again on the screen, creating a parallel between WALL-E and Eve and the man and woman onscreen.

WALL-E shows EVE the plant he found, and she immediately scans it and her sensor lights up green, since her mission was to find plant life on Earth and bring it to the Axiom so the humans know that they can come home. She takes the plant from WALL-E and stores it in a compartment on her front, and then instantly shuts off, with only a green plant symbol flashing on her front. WALL-E is clearly very confused, and upset, since he felt that he was getting closer to EVE. This moment can be seen as parabolic, warning about the power of technology and how it can distort relationships, and idea that Pope Francis brings to light in Laudato Si (par. 20). It’s already clear that WALL-E has a big heart, so it’s no surprise when he takes motionless and unresponsive EVE around on “dates”, holding an umbrella above her when it is raining, and watching the sunset with her. WALL-E appears to be a good match for the kind of humans that Pope Francis’ stresses that we all should try to be: caring and considerate of everything around us (par. 69). The anthropomorphism technique emphasizes these qualities even more.

A few days later, the ship comes back to pick up EVE and take her back to the Axiom. WALL-E freaks out when he sees her leaving and jumps on the side of the ship. The camera movements utilized during the blast-off once again illustrate the mass destruction of the Earth as a wide shot is used to show the massive piles of trash and debris on the ground as the ship ascends into the sky. This also represents the faulty idea that technology can fix everything, a concept that Pope Francis warns about in Laudato Si (par. 20). The humans in this film believe that they can fix or avoid the problem of the mass destruction of the Earth by moving to space and letting the WALL-E’s clean up – although there is only one remaining WALL-E on Earth and technology creates bigger problems that we see once on the ship.

The promise of technology is further emphasized by the uplifting music that plays as we see wide shots of the ship moving through space.

Once on the ship, we finally see the humans. They sit on hovering lounge chairs, with floating holographic screens inches from their faces. It is clear that all of the humans are morbidly obese, and this is highlighted by many wide shots of the ships interior with thousands, maybe even millions of these people, all looking the same. These scenes seem parabolic/prophetic in nature, hinting at the issues that may arise in the future with increases in technology. During these scenes, we hear an ad “Buy and Large! Everything you need to be happy!” This ad clearly represents the consumer culture that Pope Francis warns about in Laudato Si, one that leads to the degradation of the environment and the lack of communication among society (par. 22). WALL-E accidentally bumps into one of the chairs, knocking a human to the ground and shutting his screen off. He can hardly communicate and seems very confused, which is a parallel to breakdown in communication that Pope Francis argues accompanies a rise in technology (par. 47). WALL-E turns off another lady’s screen, and she too appears confused, saying “I didn’t know we had a pool!”, indicating that the humans are so immersed in technology that they have no idea what is going on around them – especially the destruction of their common home, Earth!

Next, we are brought to the captain’s quarters, where widespread technology is again accentuated. His steering wheel helps him to get ready and gives him the run down for the day, since the captain can hardly read. A camera pan across the wall shows pictures of the past captains of the Axiom, each getting progressively fatter. In this way, the camera movement emphasizes the issues that growing technology can bring. He makes an announcement to the passengers on the ship, saying “Today is the 700th anniversary of our 5 year cruise!” This is a powerful line that has many parabolic/prophetic implications that are highlighted later in Laudato Si. Clearly, the humans thought that they would be able to fix the problem of the massive degradation of Earth by living in space for 5 years and letting WALL-Es clean up, but now it has been 700 years, and the Earth is still a mess and technology is causing people to become obese and lack communication skills. This is exactly what Pope Francis warns: that we can’t rely on technology to fix the problem and that we must recognize that more problems may arise as a result (par. 20).

As we currently are in lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, many leaders are starting to think about environmental changes as we recover from the crisis. They argue that unlike the people in WALL-E, we can't just wait for the problem to go away and that we have the opportunity to make a change.

The captain gets a message that plant life has been found, and he can’t believe it. This reaction again emphasizes how long the problem of the Earth’s degradation has been growing, hinting that no one believes it can be reversed at this point. EVE approaches the captain, and opens her compartment, but the plant is gone! It is revealed that the captain’s wheel, named Auto, stole the plant and ejected it from the ship. This is another powerful and parabolic moment that warns against the power of technology. The wheel seems so human-like that it could also suggest the idea of human superiority that Pope Francis warns is at the root of environmental degradation (par. 66). Auto thinks that he has total control, and does not want the humans to go back to Earth because he believes technology is superior. This clashes with the captain, who begins watching videos about life on Earth and gets excited about the idea of farming. This contrast can emphasize the excitement and care that Pope Francis claims society must have for the Earth (par. 67).

WALL-E goes out to find the plant in space, and EVE nervously follows him. All of a sudden, the capsule WALL-E is traveling in explodes! EVE looks like she is about to cry, hinting that she too, deep down, had a desire for human connection, something that Pope Francis claims is so critical to society (par. 240). WALL-E then emerges from the explosion with a fire extinguisher, and EVE is ecstatic. A wide-shot is used to show the two racing towards each-other, the space between them becoming smaller, perhaps indicating a decrease in EVE’s feeling of superiority that she exhibited earlier on in the film and an increase in the desire to love others. Similarly, the two humans whose screens are turned off watch EVE and WALL-E hug, kiss, and dance from the window of the Axiom. These two humans accidentally touch hands. The camera shows a close-up of their hands, which zooms out to reveal their surprised faces, a camera movement that hints again at the lack of communication that plagued this society with an increase in technology that accompanied environmental degradation, the main warning in Laudato Si (par. 47).

While WALL-E is fighting off other robots, EVE rushes back to the captain with the plant, and shows him videos that she took on Earth. He sees the massive piles of trash and debris, and is confused why there is no farming or greenery like he saw in his research. EVE then sees everything that WALL-E did for her when she was shut off, making her feel grateful for their connection. She holds her own hands, just like WALL-E did at the beginning of the film, and the song from Hello Dolly! plays again. This creates nostalgia for the viewer, which can instill a feeling of love for Earth and for others, which drives home Pope Francis’ idea that lifestyle changes and stronger relationships are needed in order to achieve this harmony in society (par 264).

Suddenly, Auto tries to steal the plant again, attempting to get rid of it. He says, “Directive A113: full autopilot. Do not return to Earth,” and the robotic voice highlights the power of technology that Pope Francis warns about (par. 51). The captain, now inspired and motivated to fix the damage on the Earth, yells, “I can’t just sit here and do nothing. We’ve always done nothing! I don’t want to survive, I want to live!” This is arguably one of the most powerful lines in the film and lends to it’s parabolic nature in that it suggests a specific direction and strong will to follow it. The captain appears to be moved to action and is ready to confront the problem of the degraded Earth. Pope Francis argues that this realization is essential to making changes and caring for our common home (par. 59). The camera pan of the pictures of the multiple captains is utilized again, and it becomes clear that Auto is next to every captain. The next shot shows the current captain, and Auto moves in the same spot as the pictures! This sequence of shots drives home the message that technology is taking over and that humans need to recognize the negative consequences.

The captain throws the plant, and WALL-E, who had come up the trash chute, catches it and stores it in his main compartment. Auto tries to kill WALL-E by shooting him, and WALL-E falls down the trash chute, stunned. EVE freaks out and tries to fight back, but Auto shoots her too. Eventually, the two wake up in the trash room and realize that it’s a similar scene to Earth – giant piles of trash that giant WALL-E’s are forming into cubes and ejecting into space. This scene makes it clear that the humans aren’t addressing the problem of the excessive consumer culture and waste production, they are just trying to remedy it with technology, which is exactly what Pope Francis warns about in Laudato Si (par. 59). Eve finds parts to fix WALL-E, and they rush to the main deck to put the plant in the chute. Auto clicks the button to close it, and WALL-E gets crushed!

The captain is still fighting with Auto, and is able to put a message on that is broadcasted to all the passenger’s screens, explaining the situation. He gets up out of his chair and begins to walk for seemingly the first time, since he is basically waddling like a baby. Everyone on the ship is clapping and cheering, indicating the sense of community and togetherness that Pope Francis says is crucial to beginning to address the problem of environmental degradation (par. 179). Eventually, he turns Auto’s switch to manual, so now he is in complete control of the Axiom! The dramatic music indicates that this is a momentous scene that is highly parabolic – the switching from autopilot to manual can be seen as a parallel to how we have to take control of how we care for the Earth in order to see changes. The captain opens back up the chute and Eve puts the plant inside, so now the Axiom can return home!

As the Axiom lands, there is a lot of bright light, among the rubble, hinting at the possibility of a bright future and Earth just because the humans changed their mindset and broke free of the technology that was controlling them, a step Pope Francis argues is a big one in the right direction (par. 54). WALL-E, after being crushed, is unresponsive. EVE rushes to take him to his home to find parts to fix him. When he turns back on, he appears to not remember her, and has lost his personality. There are scenes of him doing opposite of what he would do at the beginning of the movie, such as crushing his roach friend and not caring, and turning his “treasures” into trash blocks. This strong contrast from WALL-E's original personality serves as a final warning as to how environmental degradation can harm society and individuals. Suddenly, WALL-E remembers EVE, and they hold hands, with the Hello Dolly! scene playing once again in the background. The repetition of the film scene is a cinematic technique that highlights one of Pope Francis’ main points: the importance of human connection and love (par. 240).

In the final scenes, the camera pans out to the Earth to show the people smiling and a bunch of sprouts among the debris, indicating the promise of a healed Earth. The final shot shows the Earth from space, with the Hello Dolly! song playing, again creating a feeling of nostalgia and a love for our Earth. Overall, the 2008 film WALL-E serves as a prophetic/parabolic device that uses many cinematic techniques to bring to light the lack of environmental consciousness that Pope Francis later expands upon in his encyclical, Laudato Si, in 2015, and emphasizes a call to move in a specific direction: caring more for our common home. Like Ricouer describes in his definition of a parable, this film sparks imagination that allows us to see these issues, but it is the will of each individual that determines whether the ways of parable will be followed.

The essay fulfills the requirements set for the Final Project for Parables in Pop Culture (T/RS 228) at The University of Scranton, under the direction of Dr. Cyrus P. Olsen III, for spring semester 2020, under the conditions of COVID-19 lockdown.

References

Francis. “Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ Of The Holy Father Francis On Care For Our Common Home.” The Holy See, 24 May 2015, http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html

Ricoeur, Paul. Figuring the Sacred: Religion, Narrative, and Imagination. Fortress Press, 1995.

Sikov, E. (2009). Film studies: An introduction. NY, Columbia University Press.

Statton, Andrew, director. WALL-E. Walt Disney, 2008.

The Bible. New International Version. 1973.

Created By
Nicole Antonelli
Appreciate

Credits:

Created with images by The New York Public Library - "Full Disk Earth, Apollo 17, 1972" • K. Mitch Hodge - "untitled image" • Ashwin Vaswani - "untitled image" • Ocean Cleanup Group - "Plastic pollution on the beach in Bali, before Ocean Cleanup Group operation. Plastic cups on the beach. Plastic waste" • ray rui - "untitled image" • Stanislav Kondratiev - "untitled image" • Stefan Kunze - "Interior Circles and Lines" • Priscilla Du Preez - "untitled image" • Sven Scheuermeier - "Vintage television" • Tyler Nix - "untitled image" • Billy Huynh - "If you like and utilize my work, please consider donating via PayPal: paypal.me/billyhuy — More than anything, this photograph was really the result of a series of little accidents. After abandoning a hike halfway through due to lack of sunlight, we subsequently began to make our way back home. As we drove through a long stretch of highway, I made the decision to nap in the back, but before that, for whatever reason, I peered out the window and into the heavens first. At that point, I began screaming like a madman telling everyone to look up. Amazed, we pulled into the next rest stop." • Billy Huynh - "If you like and utilize my work, please consider donating via PayPal: paypal.me/billyhuy — More than anything, this photograph was really the result of a series of little accidents. After abandoning a hike halfway through due to lack of sunlight, we subsequently began to make our way back home. As we drove through a long stretch of highway, I made the decision to nap in the back, but before that, for whatever reason, I peered out the window and into the heavens first. At that point, I began screaming like a madman telling everyone to look up. Amazed, we pulled into the next rest stop." • Joseph Barrientos - "untitled image" • Tim Mossholder - "Lettuce for Days" • Jeremy Thomas - "Colorful galaxy" • Hermes Rivera - "real talk" • NASA - "untitled image" • Bas Emmen - "Paper waste recycling plant" • qi bin - "untitled image" • Ferdinand Stöhr - "Sunset in Vancouver" • The New York Public Library - "Full Disk Earth, Apollo 17, 1972"