Most people know about Pixar’s beloved film, WALL-E. Released in 2008 and directed by Andrew Stanton, this film has captured the hearts of many with its charming protagonist WALL-E or Waste Allocation Load-Lifter: Earth-Class. A few years ago I taught a Sunday school class on the topic of man’s labor in the context of our created state and the post-fall world. To explore these themes, I began the class with images from WALL-E as a thought exercise to explore the themes of The Garden of Eden and the description of Man’s role in the Edenic garden past, present, and future. Here I am going to greatly expand on those themes and use WALL-E as a vehicle for continued discussion.
For those of you who haven’t seen the movie or may need a refresher on the plot, I’ll be filling you in on the subtle Edenic imagery found throughout the film, including the very important and often overlooked scenes from the end-credits. After exploring some of the themes portrayed in the movie, I want to contrast them with a biblical view of the Garden of Eden and man’s place and role in God’s creation.
So let’s explore the movie Wall-E. Does it tell a story of paradise regained? What was paradise and ultimately what are the goals of man’s labors?
During the first 20 minutes of dialogue-free scenes we meet Wall-E against a post-apocalyptic scene. The earth has been devastated, it is a garbage-strewn wasteland due to apparent rampant consumerism and corporate greed that took place hundreds of years earlier. We will find out later that man has abandoned the earth to live on ships among the stars while they await the possible renewal of their home.
Wall-E is left behind to clean up humanity’s mess. It’s an immense task, but Wall-E is faithful to his duties plugging away every day for hundreds of years. In Wall-E we see an image of complete faithfulness to a mission. One could say we can see him obeying the directive of his creators. Never tiring, never turning away and yet, through his work, Wall-E finds joy in small things. He collects objects and imagines a better time both in the past and future.
Here we see Wall-E during some downtime watching a videotape that he found among the rubble. The clip is from the 1969 musical “Hello Dolly.” The scene he watches includes a song from that musical “Put on your Sunday Clothes”. It’s a song we hear repeated several times throughout the movie.
Put on your Sunday clothes
There’s lots of world out there
Get out the brillantine and dime cigars
We’re gonna find adventure in the evening air
Girls in white in a perfumed night
Where the lights are bright as the stars!
Wall-E is clearly fascinated by the lead female character decked out in all-white attire played by Barbara Streisand. But let’s think first about the significance of the song. It wasn’t chosen by accident. The screenplay writer and director, Andrew Stanton, had a part in a production of Hello Dolly while in high school, so he plays homage to that simpler time, but the song being sung has additional meaning for us. The characters are dressed up in their Sunday best. In Hello Dolly the characters in the play are looking for adventure. However, I believe the director and writer of Wall-E is drawing upon the imagery of Hello Dolly to form an image in the viewer’s mind of a simpler time in the past when the world looked good, people were carefree, and love was in the air.
I’m going to suggest a theological angle here that likely was not intended by the director, but, nonetheless, I believe, is warranted given the broader theme of paradise regained throughout the story arc of the movie.
The line you are most likely to hear in the movie is “Put on your Sunday Clothes” What did it originally mean to dress up in your Sunday best? You dressed up while looking forward to communion on Sunday or the Sabbath. Christians are coming before God and presenting themselves in their best to honor God. Not that they are perfect or wishing to be praised, or even deserving of praise, but when one comes before the King it is expected that one shows respect by wearing one’s best. You are showing God what he has blessed you with. Furthermore, the sabbath day is also a foreshadowing of the final day of rest in paradise – the final sabbath.
In the movie, a simpler more beautiful world is what Wall-E is yearning for. You could say he is looking forward to an earthly paradise. Wall-E and the viewers of the movie viewers harken back to a restful time, a more perfect time, from the past, and yearn for it to return.
Think about what Wall-E does all day every day – he works to bring order to a world of disorder. The world is left in ruin and awaits restoration. We see in both the musical and the movie, a remembrance of the past as a simpler, purer, time and we look forward to a period of rest, a return to an idyllic state. Wall-E’s world has been ravaged by neglectful humans, but maybe humanity has a second chance – a second paradise in store for them.
One day, WALL-E’s routine of compressing trash and collecting interesting objects is interrupted by the arrival of an unmanned probe carrying an egg-shaped robot named Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator – or EVE. EVEs gleaming white exterior contrasts with the dirty wasteland around her.
Wall-E is captivated by this visitor who, in her whiteness, hints of purity and goodness, as does the female lead in the Hello Dolly video. Wall-E, as a denizen of this dirty world, tries again and again to communicate with this otherworldly visitor, who we come to realize is searching for any sign of life on the planet.
It is important to know that earlier in the movie we saw Wall-E had discovered a tiny seedling representing new life or “new creation” during his daily, and seemingly mundane, work. It was a curiosity to him and so he brought it back to where he recharges his batteries each evening. There is a dramatic moment where Wall-E shows this seedling to EVE. He has kept it inside a shoe. EVE scans the plant and realizes it is the evidence of life she, if we might gender the robot, has been sent to find. She takes it from Wall-E and places it inside her belly – her womb if you will– and goes dormant while waiting for the ship to come back and pick her up.
I want to stop and consider how this plant is portrayed because it is crucial to the message of the movie. The plant is growing out of a dirty old shoe. Again, I don’t believe it was an arbitrary choice by the screen writer and director of this movie. A garden theme is being drawn out for us. The plant conjures up the idea of a garden, of a place that will provide food from the ground. Having this first plant on earth in a shoe reminds us as viewers that this future will require work. The labor of man will be necessary to tend this small plant and bring it to the stage of bearing fruit.
Eventually EVE and Wall-E are transported into space to the ship where the remnant of the human race has been biding their time while the earth is cleaned up. But hundreds of years have gone by. The people are living on a ship named the Axiom. This name means a thing that is self-evidently true so, maybe, we will see what is true about the human condition here in the ship. We quickly discover that the Axiom population has grown complacent. There is NO work here. They are served by computers and do nothing but participate in activities that are self-satisfying.
The movie causes us to ask, what do we think our future will be like? Wall-E, the movie, depicts a world that Man has destroyed through lack of stewardship, and in which they are relegated to living away from their home with technology serving their every need. At first sight, it may seem as though they live in a kind of paradise. Though they have been taken from the earth, they now live a life of pleasure. Is this heaven?
Is this what some people, including many Christians conceptualize heaven to be like? No work, being served, just relaxing all the time?
But is this really a future that anyone should desire? Should this really be the goal for humanity or some individuals? Is there nothing more? Is heaven nothing more?
In the movie, the discovery of a single plant on earth seems to reawaken the collective memory of people to see that they have a home and that earth can be restored. But restored back to what?
Maybe back to a balanced ecosystem with people living with nature and working the land rather than being served by technology? These are certainly some of the intended themes of the movie.
At the very end, the people do return to earth and carefully place the plant back into its native soil. It’s the beginning of a new Earth. One might wonder, is this a return to Eden?
In the very last scene the viewer is shown little plants popping up all over the place and left to ponder what will happen to this new world. Is there hope for this new world? Are they entering a new Eden that that will make for themselves?
Or… are we really left to wonder?
Well, don’t leave the theater or turn the movie off quite yet. You have to stay in your seats for the end credits because the story continues. It’s the rest of the vision of the screenwriter and director told in glimpses of what happened after the return to Earth.
The end credits show the tiny plant covering over what was once the chaos and wilderness that man had created. It’s a new beginning. It is as if the world had been without form and was void but now was being put into order once again. But, of course, man is still man and this is not a new Eden. This is not heaven. This is just the world’s best hope for a new creation. A do-over, but one in which we know–sadly-how the story will end once again. After all, has man been fundamentally changed by this trip into space? Or is his nature such that he will fall into the same bad habits that led to the destruction of the planet the first time?
Today, many Christians are apt to look back at the “very good” creation and yearn for a return to a “perfect” prelapsarian paradise, or time before sin, that comes more from their imagination than from the scriptures themselves. They prefer to look back-toward what they have heard about and are comfortable with–rather than forward to the unknown, the perfect world to come. The theme of the movie is idyllic and presents both a positive and negative view of human nature though ultimately coming down on the goodness of man, but is it complete? On one hand there are these positive things going on but on the other hand, it’s missing crucial elements. It’s a positive vision of what people can do when they decide to set things right. How they can live in harmony with the rest of creation.
The movie’s vision suggests that, yes, man can do bad things such as corrupt our relationships with nature and one another, but for many there is an enduring belief, deep down, that we can still pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and do the right thing. We can rise above our weaknesses and find the goodness that is not just inside us somewhere but is who we really are.
If we only reach down and find that aspect in the core of our being, we can remake Eden and ourselves in it. This is where I have to say, it’s a nice thought but it does not jive with what we learn from scriptures or through our collective experience. It is not the biblical presentation of the arc of human history.
The theme presented is missing some crucial elements of the redemptive plan that God has put into place. In the end, it comes up short of a grand vision for human history, past, present and future. It underestimates the effects and depth of our sinful state that only Christ’s blood can atone for.
As the credits rise to a final crescendo, we see Wall-E and Eve, hand in hand, standing before a massive tree. It’s as if the question is being asked: Is this tree at the center of a new Eden? Have Wall-E and Eve carried out the original mission of Adam and Eve? After all, they fought off the evil technology that kept humans in subjugation and from finding their natural roots again. It’s as if they fought off, or rejected, the serpent in the garden and, rather than succumbing to that serpent and being cast from the garden into a chaotic world, their trial was successful, and the tree has grown to become a garden that covers the entire earth.
I’m thinking of making a follow-up video in which we ask the question: Isn’t a garden expanding over the whole earth what should have happened had Adam and Eve carried out the directive given to them by God? Where would we be now?
But let’s finish up some points here: So, I’ve made it sound like Wall-E is an allegory for God’s plan of redemptive history, as if this were an adaptation of a C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkein novel. But no, I don’t believe this was the intent of the director. Wall-E’s main themes are environmentalism and the dangers of technology. Now those themes are not antithetical to a Christian worldview, but then neither does the movie portray the true nature of man, Creation, and redemption as many Christians understand these concepts.
Let me illustrate this again. You see, I have yet to show you the very last image from this movie.
So let’s go to that final visual from the movie before the last of the credits roll.
In these final images we pan down from the tree that Wall-E and Eve stand before, to discover that this tree is none other than that specific plant found by Wall-E in the chaotic wilderness to which he was tasked to bring order. This tree has extended life to the whole planet with the help of the labors of man as shown throughout the credits. One could say that man has taken this plant and created a garden of Eden that has spread across the whole earth. I think this is part of the imagery that the director had in mind. However, it’s just using biblical imagery rather than teaching the intended lesson about man and his relationship with God. The message of the movie is more about being one with nature, how we work with nature, and how we can express our true “good” nature. The tree they gather around is more akin to the “world tree” of various religions.
The shoe is man’s labor and if directed properly, at least in the mind of the film creator, this will lead to good things. “Not good” in the sense of work to the glory of God the Creator, but good in a sense of being beneficial for mankind and celebrating nature as a gift of the creator.
While not discounting our labors produce good things. I will point out that the Christian, at least those of traditional protestant roots, do not see good works as the source of our salvation, though they have a purpose in God’s plan.
Summary and Conclusion
Let’s review and reflect upon what we have discussed thus far. In Wall-E we have a vision of humankind coming to his senses, realizing his good roots in nature and, by force of his own will, restoring the earth back to an Edenic paradise. Presumably a new world in which man is in harmony with nature. But if this is the whole story, what do you think will happen in the future?
What has been accomplished? How will things work out in the future? Will man have changed so significantly that he can avoid repeating the same mistakes? Has he learned enough to sustain a utopian society or heaven on earth? Maybe, and most importantly, we might ask, does man possess in his nature the capacity to obtain these things or to change himself?
I submit that we all know that such a utopia, a paradise regained, is not truly possible, at least not solely through our own actions. Let’s set aside the Bible for a moment and think about this. Let’s just consider what we have learned from evolutionary psychology and biology. We know from studying humans that they are wired for survival. The kind of altruism that would be required to maintain a utopian society cannot be expected to be universal. Despite how “good” society may be, some individuals will decide that they can get a leg up through exploitation. Within a generation or two, this strategy will have been adopted by a significant portion of the population. Eventually, society will devolve, and the common vision will be lost. We have more than enough history to look back upon to know that this is the cycle of civilizations. It is also the story of the Israelites who repeatedly returned to Gods word only to abandon it and fall back into the sin.
Now a Christian perspective of the arc of history sees human beings subject to futility and following the desires of the heart rather than those of God. Functionally this does not look that different than what I just described above. While God created, in the Garden of Eden, the conditions in which man could live in full and unfettered communion that is not possible now. Man’s desires expressed as pride, lust, influence, and so forth, inhibit man’s ability to live in perfect community with one another. Man, through his own efforts in his present state, whether you wish to understand that as a product of sin or result of evolutionary processes, is not capable of producing a utopian society or new Garden of Eden.
My view is that God placed Adam in the Garden of Eden with the capacity to succumb to the desires of the flesh (pride, deceit, lust and so forth). He had both the freedom to sin and not to sin (the Latin phrases used by theologians are posse peccare, posse non peccare). God gave Adam and Eve the opportunity to follow His Word in a place, a temple if you wish, that He had set aside that was very good for their habitation. The Christian understands that Adam and Even’s bodies, whether providentially formed through an evolutionary process or by special fiat creation, are subject to the desires of the flesh and thus result in actions contrary to God’s will and so our sinful nature prevents us from creating our own paradise on Earth by our own will. Similarly, the non-Christian or non-theist also understands man’s inability to enter an earthly paradise because man’s physical origins do not lend themselves to universally uniform thoughts and actions leading to outcomes enjoyed or agreed upon by all. Fleshly desires will always result in the breakdown of any “perfect society” as no such society can be agreed upon by all individuals that are diverse in thought and biological urges.
In this way, both the Christian and secular scholar might agree that a true paradise is not possible within the confines of this present world or present existence.
Put another way, many Christians tend to believe that the original creation was perfect, a world without pride, a world focused on others rather than oneself and a heart oriented solely toward the creator and not the creation. One way to realize this could not possibly continue is to see this because of our bodies having been formed like the beasts, from the dust of the ground whether supernaturally or via an evolutionary process. We have similar biological desires as the beasts of the field. God commanded and expected more of Adam and Eve having brought them into communion with himself in the garden temple. But! created like the other creatures we were not capable of fully taming our brute or innate behaviors. Hence the need for God’s redemptive plan since man cannot achieve, through his own actions, the perfection required to live in God’s holy presence.
At this point we could ask some very important questions such as, what was the state of creation in which Adam and Eve were placed in a Garden and communed with God’s creation? And more importantly does the bible suggest a return to that Edenic state or something much better? I hope to discuss these questions at a later date when I can turn my attention to what a Christian view of man’s labor and his relationship to the Garden is this present world should be.
I hope you will join me on a future date to explore questions like these further. Blessings to all of you.
Thanks to MC for editing assistance on this post.
This blog represents the written transcript for the video below if you prefer to hear me read it.