A Future Without Us, According to Pixar

The haunting dystopia of ‘WALL-E’

Melissa Toldy
Mar 9 · 4 min read
Photo by insung yoon on Unsplash

Sometimes, when I imagine the future, I see a screen. I’m alone, and my senses are overloaded. Stimulating content streams at me and into me. My feet press on pedals to virtual destinations. My body has responsive equipment attached to my contours. I am enveloped in technology. Underneath the addictive and intoxicating experience, there’s a feeling of despair. I’m stuck, isolated in a self-sustaining chamber. There’s nowhere else for me to go.

I live the same way everyone lives — alone, but completely dependent on a life support system, designed by people smarter than me.

My vision of the future is childish, partly because it’s based on fear, but mostly because the idea came from a Pixar animation. In the film WALL-E, the people have devolved into amorphous blobs. “All-access hover chairs” take them where they want to go. A screen shows them what they want to see. But they have limited awareness of the physical world, including their physical selves.

Excessive consumerism has turned the world into a landfill. Wall-E, the protagonist, is a solar-powered waste collector, left behind to “clean up the mess” while the people of Earth take a “non-stop entertainment” ride, in outer space. But the five-year plan turned into a 700-year vacation. Due to centuries of riding around in hover chairs, all the survivors aboard the spaceship look the same: round and large. They lack muscles and motor skills. When a man falls out of his hover chair, he’s helpless — unable to sit up or stand. These people resemble giant babies.

I saw WALL-E in New York City, not long after I moved here in the summer of 2008. I was 25 years old, and I didn’t own a smartphone. To get around Manhattan, I looked up directions on Mapquest before leaving my apartment.

When I think back on seeing WALL-E at the cinema in Times Square, I picture myself walking out of the theater, in a daze. But the important thing is, I’m walking. I’m no longer seated, eyes glued to a screen. I’m surrounded by the bright lights in the expansive atrium, and I’m heading out the doors to a city filled with other walkers, our pace regulated by the population density.

WALL-E’s depiction of the future unnerved me. For the first time, a dystopian vision looked too similar to the one I was already living in. Apple released the iPhone nearly a year to the day before WALL-E premiered. Smart phones weren’t ubiquitous yet, but many New Yorkers had Blackberries, their hands constantly fiddling, and their eyes looking down.

In some ways, my fellow New Yorkers reminded me of children, given a toy to distract themselves.

When you’re a kid, you live by the rules of the adults. Being a kid means feeling stuck, often. You have to run errands with your mother. You have to go to the dentist, on a random Tuesday. You have to finish your homework. You do what you need to do, to get through life, until you can make your own choices and decisions.

When I was a kid, Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis irked me. I never knew which was worse, though — being the bug, or seeing the bug. If you’re Gregor Samsa (the man who wakes up one morning and realizes he’s transformed into a bug), you have to face confinement, loneliness, and then death, all while feeling helpless and hopeless about your situation. But if you live with Gregor, (like the sister who once loved him) and you discover his condition, you have to face something ugly, unfamiliar and disturbing, too. The person you knew is gone, and part of you keeps hoping that one day, he will spontaneously turn back into a human.

As disturbing as Kafka’s story was to me as a kid, I didn’t grow up worried that I might become half-insect, or even full-bug. It was in my early 20s, when I saw the film WALL-E, that a scarier idea surfaced.

WALL-E feels Kafkaesque because the megacorporation Buy N Large has essentially trapped its consumers. First, they helped destroy the Earth with over-consumption, then they isolated the Earthers on their starliner cruise. Like Gregor Samsa, the people are confined (in their hover chairs), given food, but left with no real purpose.

When I watched WALL-E recently, though, I saw the limitations of Pixar’s vision. The adults who created this movie were more afraid of being the bug than seeing the bug, so to speak.

Pixar saw the bugs (corporations and consumers), and they wanted to fix them (with anthropomorphic robots).

Some viewers saw WALL-E as a robot love story. Other people saw the movie as a call to environmental activism. But I can’t stop thinking about everything the movie leaves out.

For example, where are the elderly?

In the original Axiom ad for the spaceship cruise, “Grandma can join the fun” with the all-access hover chairs. Her frail body can be carried around effortlessly, so she can meet up with her children and grandchildren, whether it’s by the pool or in the dining hall.

But 700 years later, their meals come in cups. No one swims. There are babies, but how are they born? How do people procreate if their bodies depend on machines to move?

As irksome as it was to imagine being Kafka’s bug, it was more unsettling to not recognize myself as a robot or a blob. WALL-E scared me into thinking that the future would simply exist without me — or anyone like me.

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