Avatar and the Flight from Reality
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Ever since striking gold with Toy Story (1995), the creative minds at Pixar Animation Studios have been on quite a tear. The filmmakers now have produced ten straight commercially successful and critically acclaimed works, including Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille. Over the last decade and a half, the computers used to animate Pixar’s movies have become much more powerful and the company’s production budgets, marketing tie-ins, and profits have soared. Given the high-tech wizardry and big bankrolls behind the Disney-owned company’s success, there is some irony in the fact that Pixar’s two most recent films, Up (2009) and WALL-E (2008), each offer critiques of technology, consumerism, and man’s relationship to nature. And each of these movies alludes to the Bible, and specifically the Genesis story.
Unlike the Shrek films, Up does not rely on a barrage of over-the-top pop-culture references to keep the adult portion of its audience engaged. Instead the film deals with themes like marital devotion, mourning, regret, intergenerational relationships, the adventure of daily life, and man’s stewardship of the natural world.
Carl Fredricksen, the movie’s protagonist, first encounters his future wife Ellie as a child; they both admire explorer Charles Muntz, who epitomizes the early twentieth-century belief in scientific progress. The natural world exists to be captured, controlled, and catalogued for science, and exploited for the benefit of mankind. It is a time of bold pronouncements about boundless improvement. As young Carl imitates his hero, the narrator exclaims in energetic newsreel style, “Is there nothing he can’t do!” Alas, Muntz’s most fantastic specimen, the Monster of Paradise Falls, is deemed a hoax and so the intrepid explorer sets off in his dirigible The Spirit of Adventure to clear his name.
Decades later, in our own day, Carl — now an elderly, heartbroken widower — is pestered by faceless corporate suits seeking to replace his small home with the likes of Sushi Pronto and Lazer Tan. He sets off to keep a promise he once made to Ellie: Using a gigantic bundle of balloons, he floats his house to Paradise Falls where, unbeknownst to him, Muntz is still alive and still on his quixotic quest for vindication. By its name, Paradise Falls suggests both the beautiful waterfall and the active impact of sin, and Muntz represents what Carl will become if he is not redeemed from his own obsession.
Muntz is accompanied by a cadre of trained canines that — while humanized enough to verbally express their thoughts through special collars, to prepare gourmet meals for their selfish master, and to fly airplanes — can never overcome their innate desire to chase squirrels and tennis balls. Upon encountering Muntz, Carl and his stowaway Russell, a struggling young urban Wilderness Explorer, are at first charmed by the trappings of progress and scientific discovery. Indeed, Russell is anxious to stay for dessert even as Carl realizes that the object of Muntz’s warped desire is the goofy giant bird that he has now reluctantly promised Russell that he will protect.
The central struggle in this subplot is Carl’s refusal to accept his role as master over the bird, a lovable loser dog, and the boy — all involuntarily entrusted to his care. In Genesis 1:26 God says man will “have dominion” over all life on earth. Assuming this role of mastery, however, would put Carl’s own dream at risk, so he repeatedly tells the dog, “I am not your master!” and, betraying his promise to the boy, eventually abandons the bird in its moment of greatest need.
Upon realizing that Ellie’s true wishes were not for a posthumous South American memorial but that he would re-engage the world around him after her death, Carl finally assumes his proper mantle. Early in the film, Russell comments on Carl’s unique mode of transit: “Most people take a plane but you’re smart because you’ll have all your TVs and clocks and stuff.” Now clearheaded about the mission before him, Carl discards his excess material encumbrances — the television meets an especially inglorious end — and embraces a caretaking mastership of nature and his responsibilities towards a younger generation.
Green shoots of hope and love are also at the center of WALL-E, the Oscar-winning Best Animated Feature Film of 2008 that many critics thought was unfairly denied an overall Best Picture nomination. (This time around, Up has received a Best Picture nod.)
In WALL-E, the human race has left Earth on what was supposed to be a five-year luxury space cruise while the planet is restored to habitability by Buy-N-Large, the mega-corporation that runs the world — and has presumably run it into the ground. Though emptied of people, the planet remains toxically overcrowded with its former inhabitants’ material waste; the towers of trash recall to mind Babel, where the divine gift of human ingenuity slid into the curse of hubris. Despite assurances from the company’s CEO, the Nixonian Shelby Forthright, the cleanup does not go as planned and the space cruise is extended indefinitely. After seven hundred years of purposeless vacation in microgravity, the people aboard the good ship Axiom are reduced to what director/co-writer Andrew Stanton calls “big babies.” They are now physically and psychically disconnected from each other as they glide through the vast “Economy” deck — which offers “everything you need to be happy” — moving on hoverchairs and watching only the digital screens floating in front of their faces.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, a single working-class robot, the last functioning Waste Allocation Load Lifter, Earth class (WALL-E), continues for centuries to dutifully compact and stack the garbage, along the way collecting mementos of what it means to be human. His only companion, a friendly cockroach subsisting on Twinkies, cannot fully relieve his loneliness, and so like Adam in Genesis 2, WALL-E awaits his true companion.
That companion is soon delivered from above: a sleek, high-tech, egg-shaped probe sent, like Noah’s dove, to search for signs of botanical life. Fittingly, her name is EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator), and despite some robo-romantic sparks, when WALL-E presents her with a newly found treasure (a young plant) she must obey her “prime directive” and return to the Axiom with this olive leaf.
Luckily, WALL-E hitches a ride, and the arrival of the seedling triggers a battle between the do-nothing human Captain McCrea (who, with WALL-E’s help, discovers the wonders of Earth and vows to return) and AUTO, the ship’s computerized steering wheel plotting to keep the Axiom floating in space forever.
This battle between the captain and his ship’s wheel with a mind of its own echoes the warnings of Jacques Ellul in The Technological Society. Writing in the 1950s, Ellul saw that the combination of technology and the cult of efficiency, what he together labeled technique, had become a self-perpetuating machine producing artificiality:
Technique is opposed to nature…. It destroys, eliminates, or subordinates the natural world, and does not allow this world to restore itself or even to enter into a symbiotic relation with it. The two worlds obey different imperatives, different directives, and different laws, which have nothing in common.
Captain McCrea cries “Mutiny!” as AUTO takes over, begging the audience to consider at what point technology stops serving us and starts demanding our acquiescence. Ellul lamented that, given the modern focus on comfort over righteousness, “the victory of technique has already been secured.” WALL-E ends, however, on a more hopeful note, with the captain successfully pushing the manual override button before it is too late.
Andrew Stanton, however, would likely agree with Ellul that the problem, at its heart, is a spiritual one. The captain’s courage to fight comes only after an epiphany, and Stanton, a professing Christian, has described the essence of the film to Christianity Today as “irrational love defeats life’s programming.” Stanton has repeatedly denied that he set out primarily to make a “message movie” about the environmental crisis, insisting instead that relationships were at the heart of his thinking:
I wasn’t trying to make the humans into fat, lazy consumers, but to make humanity appear to be completely consumed by everything that can distract you — to the point where they lost connection with each other, even though they’re right next to each other.
The pull of digital entertainment for the humans aboard the Axiom is a form of soft idolatry not too far removed from Aaron’s glittering golden calf; it is reminiscent, too, of Aldous Huxley’s warning about “man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” With WALL-E, Pixar has given us a dystopian fable to rival Huxley’s Brave New World, but one ending with hope instead of despair. WALL-E argues that irrational relationships of love are not just possible but are necessary to break the chains of distraction and totalitarianism.
The centrality of human relations and redemption to both Up and WALL-E may have something to do with the relationship between Stanton and Pete Docter, the director/co-writer of Up, and a fellow Christian. In fact, the original story for WALL-E dates back to a 1994 conversation between the two, and they earned a joint Oscar nomination for their screenwriting efforts. Both were also integral to the creation of Toy Story, and Stanton was later the executive producer of Up. It requires no great feats of interpretation to see how the directors’ mutual Biblical faith influenced the two movies. Even if some of the references to Genesis were the result of what Stanton describes as the Old Testament being “sort of built into our DNA,” others certainly were intentional.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, and despite a blizzard of interviews, the entertainment media has inquired little about the Biblical themes in Up. Yet one can infer something of Docter’s vision from what he told Radix Magazine several years ago about one of his animation influences: “[Canadian animator Frédéric Back] makes these really great, very personal films, mostly about environmental issues that say, ‛Technology is going to take you over and any spirituality that we have.’” Now both Docter and Stanton appear to have tapped into that same Back vein, focusing on the healing power of restored relationships in the face of an attempt to distort the created order.
Notwithstanding their many undeniable benefits, science and technology have not delivered the universal happiness and security they have long promised: our personal jetpacks and four-hour workdays have apparently been lost in the e-mail, and we live with lingering fears about our debt culture and the next drug-resistant superbug. And while the notion of a single mega-corporation running the world is surely a stretch, our real-life corporate slogans seem to echo those of hubristic Buy-N-Large: IBM wants to “build a smarter planet”; Intel bills itself as the “sponsors of tomorrow”; Visa is the “currency of progress.”
Despite the timeliness of the messages in Up and WALL-E, there remain potential pitfalls for the messengers. Neil Postman was concerned primarily with the influence of television when he theorized, in Amusing Ourselves to Death, that those who attempted to turn that medium on itself would only themselves be corrupted. Anyone who tried to use TV to change TV would, he warned, ultimately become a celebrity and “end up making television commercials.”
Pixar’s relationship to the world of Buy-N-Large and Charles Muntz poses its own quandaries. Up ends with a touching image of “the boring stuff” — the warmth of ordinary human relations — that matters most, while the men and women in WALL-E finally learn to stand on their own two feet and give up the Axiom’s “lunch in a cup” for farming. In the real world, however, Pixar’s parent corporation is pitching its own Disney Cruise Line with inserts in the Up DVD cases promising that “Paradise Awaits!”
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The Genesis of Pixar