As Long As We're Talking Film Subversion...

Wesley J. Smith, the gentleman and scholar I've dubbed the "Defender of the Human Race" has an excellent piece up at First Things about Hollywood's hatred of humanity.

I have to take issue with one thing in it, sadly.

Pixar's WALL-E does not belong in his Hall of Shame. 

I'll explain why in a second, but first some quick background. Smith is a tireless opponent of anti-humanism, the idea that human beings are a "cancer" on the earth, or  "virus" that needs to be either eradicated or contained. He is concerned that the virus we really need to worry about is an ideological one: a radical anti-humanism infecting the environmental movement.

If you're interested in digging deeper, I highly recommend not only his movie and e-bookWar on Humans, but also his earlier bookRat is a Pig is a Dog is a Boy: The Human Cost of the Animal Rights Movement. And you should really watch Dead Reckoning's interview with him a few weeks ago. 

I myself have also written about anti-humanism here.

Anyway, some people have expressed some confusion this past week when Brian Godawa and I were using the term "subversion." As in, the movie Noah is a subversion of the biblical story. What does it mean to be "subversive"?

Happily, I can kill two birds with one stone and illustrate using WALL-E, because it is a fine example of subversive filmmaking. First, here's a rough-and-ready definition: Subversion is the act of telling a familiar story, one that "everybody knows" with a moral or lesson "everybody knows," but making subtle changes and introducing new themes, elements, and symbols that point to a different conclusion than the one the audience was expecting.

And WALL-E qualifies as just such a familiar tale. Human beings have so abused the planet with giant industrial corporations that it isn't habitable anymore and they are forced to abandon the earth until the robots can clean it up. That's a story so familiar it's almost achieving the level of Mythology: a myth being profitably exploited by, ahem, giant corporations (Sorry, but that's what Whole Foods is, folks). But we all know the moral lesson that follows: big corporations are bad; technology and industry is bad; if we don't start growing our organic gardens and living "sustainably" we're all headed for the dystopian, trash-ridden world of WALL-E. Human beings and their consumption are not a solution; they're the problem.

Familiar enough, I trust.

But WALL-E is, in fact, a profoundly pro-human film. In fact, far from teaching the typical Ferngully-esque "humans are bad for nature" moral, WALL-E teaches that the Earth needs humans.

There is a particular term in the script that sounds like run-of-the-mill fancy "robot" jargon, but is actually a key to the film. When WALL-E first meets Eva, they have what is basically a one word conversation, asking each other:


What's your purpose? Why were you made? What are you supposed to do? Almost all of the characters in the film have a unique "directive." WALL-E picks up and packages trash into cubes. Eva searches for organic life forms. Mo cleans up skid marks on the floor, et cetera.

The only characters in the film who have no "directive," no purpose, are the human beings. They're floating around aimlessly in space in a giant ship with nothing to do but leisure. They're all grossly obese and have lost the ability to even interact with one another. They've been up there so long they no longer remember any "directive."

The climactic scene occurs when the Captain picks up the plant Eva has brought from Earth and waters it after it has fallen on the floor. "Come here, little guy. You came a long way for a drink of water. You just need somebody to look after you, that's..." the next word, "all," doesn't come because he is thunderstruck.

He looks at the plant, then at a globe of the Earth.

"We have to go back."

He's rediscovered humanity's directive. The Earth needs somebody to look after it. That is the unique human calling and responsibility. Nature needs humans. That is not an example of Hollywood's war on humans; it's a sensational exception to the rule.

With all Pixar films, closing credits are designed to be watched, and WALL-E is no different. It animates what happens after humans return to earth. The animation sequence is a work of artistic genius. Far from showing the creation of a typical "go green" sort of vision, it shows a re-creation of a culture we all know. It begins with making fire and drilling wells, moves to industrial agriculture (using robots!), fishing (with nets!), and building cities with classical architecture.

What makes it even more amazing is that the animation style transitions through the great artistic styles in vogue at each stage of cultural development! It begins with primitive drawings on a cave wall (note the flickering fire) for the making of fire, moves to Egyptian Hieroglyphs for the drilling of wells, Greco-Roman classical style and mosaic art for the development of agriculture, Renaissance drawing for fishing,  a modernist style for architecture, impressionism for the building of cities, on to pastel painting and the work of Van Gogh, and so on. I'm not enough of an art historian to identify it all, but the pattern is definitely there to see. 

The whole thing is a celebration of Western Civilization, both in content and style.

And it's why WALL-E is one of my favorite subversive films.

And thanks to Google, you can watch it right here without going anywhere:

Brian Mattson