A digitized desert. I sit in my apartment, eyes fixed on my phone screen, typing in a message to a friend in Paris. In the background my 60 inch TV simultaneously beams a live NBA game from thousands of miles away. I glide effortlessly between both screens, one upright in my hand, the other horizontal before me.
Switched off and bereft of electric signals, these devices share an uncanny resemblance to 2001: A Space Odyssey’s monolith, which first appears to primitive humans in a desert not unlike what Qatar would have looked like before the advent of its digital age. While this thought runs through my mind, my sight jumping rapidly between phone and TV screen, we are perfectly aligned and I am suddenly gripped by this alignment. I feel a direct connection with the primitive humans/apes of 2001, the phone screen melds seamlessly with the monolith, and for a millisecond I am transported into a fictional past that seems to have manifested itself into existence, conjured by this perfect alignment of my mind, my sight, and the two screens. I can’t help but think of the planetary alignment that provokes 2001’s events. Did the screens partake in this time-warp and insert themselves into the film?
The real 2001, the real time-warp
In her poignant visual essay Heart of a Dog (2015), Laurie Anderson observes that after September 11 2001, cameras suddenly started appearing everywhere. The dawn of a new visual age had seeped through the cosmic portal unleashed by this cataclysmic event horizon.
I wonder how differently we would have perceived 9/11 if digital cameras and phone cameras had existed at the time, knowing that the technology was probably already there and that it suddenly exploded into our lives, minds,(and hands) only a few years later. To the point where we live in a radically different world only 18 years later. Like the celestial child at the end of 2001, born of planetary alignment, we are children of a new age, and the screen is God.
Wall.E’s reversal of 2001: A Space Odyssey
Wall.E (2008) conjures 2001: A Space Odyssey on several occasions, with a series of straightforward visual and audible references. Auto, the robot that controls the ship that harbours the remnants of humanity 700 years later, far out in space, is a mobile version of 2001’s HAL9000 in shape and in function. Later, in the midst of the film’s action, Richard Strauss’s “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” makes a swift appearance during a triumphant moment. At first glance these references might appear to be playful tips of the hat from a children’s animation about space and the future, to one of the greatest futuristic space films ever made. However, Wall.E’s rapport with 2001 runs far deeper than just a passing homage in an otherwise unrelated work. In fact, Wall.E is arguably 2001’s flip-side.
2001 is essentially about human evolution and the next steps that humanity is destined to take in order to reunite with the stars. It links humanity’s ultimate past as an ape with its future as a celestial entity. Wall.E on the other hand, is about human devolution. Contrary to 2001’s positing, humanity has screwed up its future, earth is an uninhabitable heap of trash, and the remnants of humanity, living on a spaceship, have devolved into lazy, immobile, and useless slobs that are completely dependent on machines and AI in their every move. The exact opposite of 2001’s star-child future human, they live in a trance-like consumerist loop, to the point where the outside world and their basic understanding of life have all but faded away (A remarkably insightful foreshadowing of our current state, considering that in 2008, smartphones and tablets were only just emerging commercially).
What follows is a fairly textbook Disney affair in which love, friendship, and human values (even among robots), triumph over the forces of subservience to blind technology that is sustaining the human devolution. The humans return to earth and embrace the path to replanting and rebuilding their mother planet.
It is not until the credits roll that Wall.E manages to deliver its richest and most powerful of notions. In what seems to be a reset of humanity’s evolution process, the end credits begin with the human return to earth depicted in a style similar to that of prehistoric cave drawings, followed by what seems to be an Egyptian hieroglyphic style, Greek, Roman mosaic, Chinese, Renaissance, several variants of impressionist styles, until it ends with an 80s computer game graphics style. The entire reset of human visual history is compacted into a few minutes, however, this time Wall.E and Eve are there to aid in this evolution, a technologically assisted reenactment of human history. One of the most poignant and effective end credits in the history of cinema!
The gap that Kubrick bridges in 2001: A Space Odyssey with his infamous bone to spaceship cut, leaves us tantalized and with much to fill in. On an ontological level, the major problem that Wall.E tackles with respect to this cut is the notion that somewhere within it humanity lost its footing and went on a legendary dependency tangent that has defined modern humanity. We did go into the wormhole that created the star-child in 2001, but came out on the other side.
2001 depicts a form of mystic and metaphysical transformation that pushes humanity forward, a transformation that might be hindered by mindless technology. Wall.E, on the other hand, draws a clear line between mindless technology (Auto and its henchbots), and technology imbued with a spirit of humanity (Wall.E and Eve). Wall.E for example appreciates song and dance, and manages to reignite the lethargic humans’ love for it. In that sense he is a “dream machine”, one that carries within it inherent values of what makes human thought unique and not just zeroes and ones. A technology that elevates and inspires human thought rather than taking it over completely.
What remains certain is that the ubiquity of screens in our lives has ushered in a new human age. However, screens of all forms remain blank canvases awaiting to be projected upon (literally and figuratively) by our visions and dreams. This small window of personal mind-space is the grounds upon which we must build our future empires which, make no mistake of it, will be empires of the mind!
I will be revisiting Wall.E, along with Toy Story, Cars, and several other all-American films and their sequels, in an upcoming piece on the secret life of capitalism and how it constantly reproduces itself. Stay tuned…