Wall-e: What Does a Story Mean?
My wife and I are long-time animated film fans. We particularly like the recent work done by Pixar, and were eager to see their new one, “Wall-e.” I enjoyed it immensely. However, there is some controversy swirling around this movie and particularly around interpretations of what the story really means.
In case you missed this so far, there are some saying that the movie is a powerful allegory on the dangers of rampant consumerism and environmental destruction. Others are writing that this is a subversive movie intended, by a group of tree-huggers, to undermine the benefits of science, technology, and progress. My point in writing on this move is not to take sides, as you will read shortly; I don’t see the movie from either of these points of view. I do want to use the story to talk about stories and their meanings, and yes, this has important implications for Christians who hold dearly a book that is full of stories, namely, the Bible.
Last week, I had the benefit of hearing the Wall-e’s creator tell about the genesis of the story that became the movie. He set out with the simple idea of the last robot on earth. He then worked backwards to create a world where such a being existed. “Being is an important word, because even thought Wall-e is a robot, he has evolved into a remarkable self-aware being. Wall-e’s creator seems a bit perplexed by the interpretations of the story and the controversy that surrounds this. He said several times that, “it is a very simple story.” This comment by the author, however, leads us directly into the issue of what a story means, and more importantly for those of us who preach Christian stories, does a story only mean what the author intended it to mean?
The direct answer to this question is “no.” I would content what makes for a good story is that it captures our imagination, and allows us to read into the story. In this task, we become almost co-creators with the original author. Let me be clear, I am not in the camp of radical deconstructionist who ignores the author’s intent. I believe “what” the author intended is important. I am just saying that finding the author’s original intent is not discovering the total meaning of the story. What makes for a good story is this ability to engage the listener, just as what makes Jesus’ parables so good and long-lasting is their ability to continue to engage us in their meaning.
I think the power of the story of Wall-e the robot is not in found in the environmental wasteland of earth, or the distorted human beings who have lost connection with their true home and their true selves as they take their perpetual cruise in space. For me, Wall-e is most essentially a love story. However, it is not simply a story about two different robots who manage to find one another and fall in love. It is a story about how love, especially the love between a man and a woman, redeems us to our true selves.
This starts with Eve, the smooth, white, pure, and powerfully destructive robot who is sent on a mission to discover if there is life on earth. In Wall-e’s eyes, Eve becomes Ev-a. Wall-e calls her out of her own program and beyond it to become the mate he has longed for in his lonely existence. He even risks his life to save her from the evil “auto-pilot” who seeks only to preserve the status quo of his reason for existing. Tragically, in saving her, Wall-e is damaged and returns to his meaningless pre-existence as a mindless trash collector. Ev-a now returns to rescue him, and looking deeply into his eyes, she calls him back to himself.
This is what romantic love is really about. In our love and longing for another, sometimes born out of acute loneliness, we help our beloved see him or her self in a deeper way. They see themselves more fully as the beloved of another. At the same time, this beloved is able to look into our eyes and take us beyond our simple ways of seeing ourselves. Eve, the biological probe becomes the beloved Ev-a. Wall-e, the trash collecting robot, becomes the white knight whose quest for his beloved also happens to be the redeemer of all of humanity.
Where have we heard this story before? It is the heart of “The Man of La Mancha.” Wall-e is the crazy old man who becomes the valiant knight whose mad quest awakens the dull maiden into the beautiful Dulcinea. At the end of the story, as the evil agent convinces Don Quixote that he is nothing, it is the lovely Dulcinea who looks into his eyes and calls him back to his true self. In this, the true story of humanity unfolds.
But, look even deeper for a moment. What is a good story? It is a story in which we find meaning. This meaning is found in who we are. Yet, at the same time, the story is more than what we interpret it to mean, because the story is also able to call out of ourselves a deeper meaning of who were are. A good story is, after all, the Ev-a for all of us. Perhaps this is why most of Jesus’ teachings were stories. These stories were intended, not just to instruct us, but to awaken us and remind us of our true nature.