Listen to my read-aloud
Crowded, towering skyscrapers form an intricate maze, a dusty smog blowing over, the baking sun beating down on this desperate, parched landscape. There is no life in sight—only trash, in inconceivable abundance. As the camera pans from above, a creepy realization: the towers themselves are composed of garbage. It is post-life-on-Earth. Hello Dolly, the ‘60s musical, plays in the background, before the shot focuses on something moving, something on wheels. It’s a robot: dusty, battered, and thickly coated in dirt, with faded identifying lettering, compacting trash to construct these towers.
Welcome to the world of WALL-E, Andrew Stanton’s imaginative animated 2008 Disney-Pixar movie. Eight hundred years into the future, capitalism has played itself out, and many generations ago, all the humans took off on the Axiom, a robotic, corporately-controlled cruise ship now in another galaxy. Earth remains covered in garbage, and climate collapse is implied through the complete lack of plant or animal life. But WALL-E the robot remains in this desperately lonely world, diligently digging away.
But despite the absence of human beings in the film, WALL-E feels astonishingly human. Producers meticulously color-graded the first segment brown and bleached white, underscoring the baking sunlight. After WALL-E meets EVE, a futuristic robot sent back from the Axiom to assess Earth’s habitability, and begins falling in love with her, subtle tints of blue and pink suddenly emerge, adding depth to the parched landscape. EVE herself hovers above the ground, her gentle pulsation timed with human breath, subtly affixing human sensibility. During production, the animation team spent months studying traditional cinematography, painstakingly recreating the intricacies of physical cameras in custom animation software. The film showcases these efforts through visual artifacts when zooming, visible focus adjustments and depth of field, lens flare, and other “mistakes.” Animators, meanwhile, filled WALL-E’s atmosphere with dull, smoggy particulate and rendered every last object faded, dirty, and rusting. Pixar rendered WALL-E with its typical startling attention to detail: the crisp skittering of a cockroach, the crumpled tracks behind WALL-E’s rolling treads, the searing embers left behind by EVE’s tendency for explosion. All these details, crafted with care, evoke a distinctly human feeling.
The story is utterly compelling: the American Film Institute named WALL-E one of the best films of 2008. The Hollywood Reporter called it “fantastically imaginative, breathtaking” (Honeycutt). Time Out said it was “wonderfully imagined and lovingly presented” (Calhoun), while The Atlantic followed up, calling it a “cinematic miracle” (Orr). The Guardian proclaimed “Pixar boldly goes where no animation studio has gone before” (Brooks).
Though accompanied by an orchestral soundtrack, lively sound effects, a healthy number of explosions, and the occasional robotic intonation (“wow!”), the film primarily remains free of dialog. The handful of Hello Dolly clips, brilliantly woven in, harken to a more innocent era while teaching WALL-E about love. Delicate, emotional scenes such as WALL-E imagining holding hands (and eventually getting the opportunity to do so with EVE) build an endearing personality of compassion, dedication, and curiosity. Near-unconscious nods to analog cameras brings the nuance of traditional filmmaking to the animated world, carefully-considered characters showcase a rainbow of emphatic emotions, while scrupulous sound editing connects a foreign spaceship to our present world. This mostly-silent animated film about a robot in the apocalypse feels deeply human.
The same year I saw WALL-E premiere (2008), I encountered a charming scene at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Now, in the permanent collection, one room stands behind a velvety curtain: a curved, wide-angle diorama behind glass features dozens of scrappy handmade characters in a circus scene. This is Le Cirque de Calder, the work of Alexander Calder, an American artist and sculptor. Under a makeshift model of a circus tent, over seventy unique characters breathe new life into everyday materials: metal wire, yarn and string, cork, rubber, paint. Even standing still, they’re brimming with personality. Faces drawn with markers and paint or stitched on with yarn or beads come to life. A lion shows a rebirth of a coat hanger, bent into a wiry body. Fabric and stuffing compose a face with two small, hexagonal metal nuts as eyes looking in no discernible directions. A luscious mane of twine surrounds the face in tan plumage, accompanied by a pompom tail echoing the material. Nearby, a woman stands in an ankle-length velvety dress on her 6-inch figure. Dual-wire arms and feet jut out, while a black fuzzy material adds a head and tiny cap, with a figure-eight-shaped wire alluding to the concept of eyes. A dog of wire and paper sits upright by the woman’s side, seemingly barking with enthusiasm.
Sorting through his designated trash every day, WALL-E would save anything eye-catching—a cool-hinged velvet ring box, the sparkling diamond lacking apparent value, or a spork, defying traditional categorization—to rescue from landfill for his personal archives. Calder constructed his characters, meanwhile, of common, household-material scraps. In landscapes of extreme constraint, both embody a special kind of “trash to treasure,” finding and breathing unique value into what others discarded. This builds a special kind of personality—resourceful, caring, and cute—viewers are attracted to by deep, primal instinct. Though the worlds of WALL-E and Le Cirque are manufactured for clearly outside the human realm, both manage to create something strongly compelling, stretching to humanlike.
When I first watched WALL-E in third grade, I had yet to learn about the climate crisis. Later discovering the concept in a book, I felt deeply betrayed by the world: we were irreversibly leaving a path of destruction across the planet, and no one had even told me? The first photographs I saw of climate destruction were from Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky. His photographs feature landscapes, often at macro scale, trashed, ravaged, crowded, covered, emptied, charred: a Malaysian forest divided between palm-oil-clear-cut and surely-briefly surviving trees, a rainbow of gridded toxic sludgepools in the Chilean desert, a massive industrial excavation machine rolling down an underground Russian mineshaft, a grassy field turned into unending parking for belching combustion vehicles. “Our planetary system is affected by a magnitude of force as powerful as any naturally occurring global catastrophe, but one caused solely by the activity of a single species: us,” Burtynsky writes of this photo collection, “Anthropocene.”
I discovered his previous “Water” collection printed large-format at the Weinstein Gallery in Minneapolis in 2015, and the works remain unforgettable. While so many environmental issues exist at unimaginable scale, Burtynsky’s photographs make them viscerally physical. He captures many of his subjects from a distance, often with a wide-angle lens, making the human interference pictured seem infinite. But they are never sterile, uniform, predictable, or unattached; on the contrary, near-imperceptibly, he leaves “hooks” in the photographs viewers can connect to in scale, story, or emotion, like a seemingly ant-sized person searching the heap of trash. In this way, we are rescued from perturbed disconnection to these massive structures. Against all odds, we feel connected.
Like the opening scenes of WALL-E, oftentimes Burtynsky’s landscapes take a moment to contextualize and comprehend. But even after orienting ourselves, these stories never untangle simply. Burtynsky’s photographs portray continuous contradiction. The existence of the toxic waste pools is tragic; we feel for the people nearby; we realize the implication of our Western lifestyles; nonetheless, they are visually beautiful. This barrage of paradox echoes that of WALL-E, where the trash should be hideous, the reason it’s there is insidious, but nonetheless we see aesthetic beauty. In their post-human spaces, the nihilism feels oddly irresistible.
Over five hundred years ago, Hieronymus Bosch painted The Garden of Earthly Delights, a massive painting, 81” tall and 152” wide, now housed in the Museo del Prado in Madrid, Spain. Historians know little about Bosch’s intentions with the painting, so viewers have been left to interpret it. It is a triptych, with two panels on the outside unfolding into three interior panels. The exterior panels show Earth during Biblical creation, after plant life’s beginning but prior to animals or humans, the planet a delicate sphere (and Earth’s representation as non-flat remained radical at that time). Inside lies a nearly-indescribable sight. Given the Biblical context set by the outside, the first panel pictures a (wacky interpretation of) Genesis and its Garden of Eden, with Jesus, Adam, and Eve near the bottom, surrounded by animals of all varieties crawling out of a dark pond. Bizarre sculptures loom in the background, but consecutive panels pull one’s attention. In the center panel, against a similar green grassy background, hundreds of people and animals crowd the landscape. Closer inspection reveals the emergence of sin: overpopulation, excess, mysterious animals and humans eating one another, outlandish sculptural fountains, scenes of hunting, and conflict fill the canvas. A plant grows out of the backside of a prone figure. Other figures ride massive birds through the water. It is bizarre, chaotic, dense, though nonetheless oddly aesthetically pleasing. But the third panel shows seemingly another planet. At the top, a charred, burning, smoke-filled landscape. In the middle, against a charcoal backdrop, figures climb inside a human’s hollowed shell, a massive blade juts out of two ears, animal skulls and unidentifiable parts and shapes clutter the rest. It is utter hell—with all plants, animals, and water from the previous scenes gone, we are confronted with true apocalypse.
What did Bosch want to show us with Earthly Delights? Do the panels—paradise, Earth, hell—map to past, present, and future, a moral warning of a society Bosch saw taking the wrong path? He lived hundreds of years before our climate crisis, but in his era, not long after the Black Death plagued and slaughtered Europe, religious wars abounded, clearly he had no trouble imagining a dark future. Humans could be wiped out, Bosch showed us, and it would be due to our sinful, gluttonous ways. Though only occupying one panel, at some level The Garden of Earthly Delights is a painting about hell. In parallel, Burtynsky’s photos show the hell we create for ourselves. Through the form of a Pixar movie, WALL-E is a movie about surviving in hell as well.
Although Bosch painted in a clearly-religious context long ago, his insights feel startlingly contemporary. Our insatiable consumption now seems far too close to the landscape of hellfire Bosch reserved for the panel of the future. And consume do we all now, at truly unprecedented levels, with such consequences. In his New Yorker essay “How Extreme Weather Is Shrinking the Planet,” environmentalist Bill McKibben summarizes humanity’s effects on climate thus far and where we’re headed. The last thirty years have included “all twenty of the hottest years ever recorded” (McKibben). The melting of glaciers and ice predicted for decades out has already happened. As sea levels rise and parts of the planet become too hot for humans, we will be forced into retreat: “Until now, human beings have been spreading, from our beginnings in Africa, out across the globe—slowly at first, and then much faster. But a period of contraction is setting in as we lose parts of the habitable earth. Sometimes our retreat will be hasty and violent; the effort to evacuate the blazing California towns along narrow roads…but most of the pullback will be slower, starting along the world’s coastlines.”
Through retreat, we have an opportunity to become more like WALL-E—scrappy and resourceful, but caring and authentic. When human beings were first spreading out, the world must have seemed infinite—the ocean life, the biodiversity of the rainforests, the abundance of game. The world we were exploring, it turns out, had limits all along. “Human beings have always experienced wars and truces, crashes and recoveries, famines and terrorism…climate change is different,” McKibben writes. It echoes of Bosch’s warning with his painting, half a millennium ago—there is no turning back, his painting asserts, from humanity’s sins. The excess Bosch saw holds barely a candle to modern overconsumption, but he sensed our predisposition for excess. Burtynsky captures the effects of this reality with sensitive, purposeful observation. It is horrifying to imagine how Bosch would paint us in modern times.
“It’s now reasonable to ask whether the human game has begun to falter—perhaps even to play itself out,” McKibben daringly suggests. Innovation in industrialization defined our previous era. But our retreat, our mass migrations, inevitable resource shortages, and increasing natural disasters will strain our systems, ideas, and societies. Moving into an increasingly-unpredictable future, humans will adapt—evacuating from forests consumed by Bosch’s hellfire, migrating from parched prairies. Our next era will be the real test of human race, defined by innovation in adaptation.
Burtynsky, through the literal lens of the human world, imagines one post-human. WALL-E does similarly, though grounded in human sentimentality. But ending in typical Disney fashion, WALL-E provides reassurance—when the characters return to a magically-restored Earth, the plot lets viewers off the hook. For all its groundbreaking depth, WALL-E is in the end family-friendly fantasy. McKibben, not subject to Disney story requirements, charts our path oppositely. Disney could not permit WALL-E ending in rage, despair, or nihilism, but present science points more in that direction.
Can we find a place between total nihilism and Disney’s ending? In order to survive, humanity must face reality without falling into complete despair. At the climax of WALL-E, our protagonist and EVE battle the A.I. ship pilot with every last volt, cheered on by all the Axiom’s incapacitated occupants; only through EVE’s rescue of WALL-E does the ship return back to Earth. Forgiving the faulty optimism thereafter, perhaps WALL-E’s focus on human connection surpasses Disney trope. McKibben’s choice of word, “retreat,” implies becoming closer together; accompanied, in a friendlier world, by wider-scale resourcefulness and inclusivity. As our world inches closer to WALL-E’s, we must create Calder’s circus—and that requires the care and sensitivity the robot embodied all along.
Bosch painted the scene of hell off to the side, half the size of The Garden where humans live. Perhaps he meant it only as a warning, not an unchangeable projection of the future. If “the human game has begun to falter,” then we must rise to the occasion of writing a new ending for ourselves. Not a Disney one, but a human one, of perseverance and connection and messy progress. We can only hope it’s enough. ◆