By: Moses Dyckman  | 

“By the Sweat of Your Brow": Counter-Biblical Themes in the Movie WALL-E

If you are in a movie theater surrounded by toddlers, teenagers, adults and elderly people, odds are you’re watching a Pixar film. The studio has proved again and again their prowess at producing movies that are funny, colorful, and engaging enough to attract younger audiences, while illustrating thought-provoking ideas to bring in the adult crowd.

Take the movie WALL-E. It’s about the last robot on an abandoned earth, who, in pursuit of love, finds his way onto a spaceship filled with humans who have been infantilized by technology. There, he leads a rebellion to bring humanity back to earth. The movie has been praised for its intriguing ideas about politics, humanity, technology and conservation. However, very few critics have picked up the powerful biblical themes which run through the movie.

WALL-E can be compared with many biblical narratives, including the story of Noah. Here, I chose to focus on the most fruitful (pardon the pun) of the comparisons: the story of Adam and Eve. The premise of the movie is that there is a robot named WALL-E who lives entirely by himself on an isolated and trash covered earth. He is very lonely. Suddenly, a female robot named EVE is sent down to Earth. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Andrew Stanton, the director of WALL-E, said in an interview that he named the female robot “EVE” because WALL-E struck him as an Adam figure: all alone on Earth, longing for companionship.

The parallels don’t stop there. On Earth, EVE discovers a lone living plant, the film’s equivalent of the tree of knowledge. In the movie, EVE was built as a probe to search for growing plant life on earth: a sign that Earth is capable of supporting life again. When the plant is discovered by EVE, humanity leaves the indulgence of the starliners to return to the now habitable earth. Thus, EVE’s seizing of the “tree of knowledge” results in a fall from the comfort of a technological Eden to a harsh earth.

However, that does not mean that the movie has the same messages as the biblical story. Just the opposite! Everything that is evil in the Adam and Eve story becomes good in WALL-E. For example, the moral of Adam’s fall from grace is that he sinned because he disobeyed the instructions of G-d. On the other hand, WALL-E valorizes disobedience as a true expression of free will. For example, WALL-E is literally programmed to do nothing but mindlessly compact trash into cubes. In spite of this, over the course of the movie, WALL-E and EVE are able to overcome their directives in pursuit of love. Andrew Stanton, the director of WALL-E, wrote that “It took these really irrational acts of love to sort of discover them against how they were built.” In other words, through their love, the robots discover that they are something greater than their constructors intended. In the story of Adam, it is repeatedly emphasized that he was a creation of G-d. Since his value is determined solely by fulfilling the purposes of his creator, eating from the tree of knowledge was a terrible sin. On the contrary, the creators of WALL-E believe that true value can only be found outside of the creator’s intentions.

WALL-E and EVE are not the only characters in the movie to resist their instruction. In fact, just about every character in the movie rebels, from the captain, who fights against complacency (and the ship’s autopilot) to bring humanity back to earth, to the robot M-O, who steps off his illuminated floor line to follow WALL-E’s dirty tracks.  The only major character in the movie who is totally incapable of disobeying his instructions is AUTO, the villainous autopilot of the starliner “The Axiom”. He was instructed not to allow humanity to return to Earth and obeys those orders blindly, even when he sees the plant, evidence that earth is capable of supporting life again. By making the obedient character into the villain, the movie WALL-E creates a code of ethics which is completely different from the story of Adam.

Throughout the story of Eden, there is a motif of dust and ground being associated with Adam. First of all, Adam is created from “dust from the ground”, which is the root of his name, Adam. However, this dirt aspect of man is portrayed as something crude, especially since it is juxtaposed with G-d breathing into Adam’s nostrils, the action which actually makes him a living soul. When G-d punishes Adam with mortality, he says that he will live “until you return to the ground, for you were taken therefrom, for dust you are, and to dust you will return,” associating man’s earthy beginnings with his mortality. Similarly, when Adam is exiled from Eden, the verse reads, “And the Lord God sent him out of the Garden of Eden, to till the soil, whence he had been taken,” which connects man’s punishment with his earthiness.

The Pixar movie also connects natural man with dust and earth. Earth, the planet, has become completely covered with dust, with dust storms occurring periodically. In contrast, the unnatural Axiom starliner is absolutely dirt free, to the extent that the sole purpose of one of the robots (M-O) is to eliminate filth. However, when WALL-E enters the Axiom, he simultaneously disrupts its mechanical routines with his human spontaneity and tracks dirt all over its pristine white floors. When he meets the human captain, he shakes the captain’s hand, leaving a dirty residue. The captain later analyzes that very dirt on the ship’s computer (which it defines as “earth”) which leads him to learn about and falls in love with planet earth and all the facets of natural human life, such as farming and dancing. In the end, the captain is so enchanted by Earth and natural man that he fights to bring the passengers of the Axiom back to a dusty Earth. This movie, unlike the Bible, shines a positive light on the earthy side of man, proclaiming that it is what makes us human.

In the same vein, the punishments which Adam received become blessings in WALL-E. Adam was also cursed that he would only be able to eat bread “with the sweat of his brow” through planting and harvesting. On the other hand, the humans of the Axiom fight for this very opportunity! They choose to abandon the comfort of the starliner so that they could grow their own food in the dust-filled desolation of earth. One of the final scenes of the film consists of happy human children planting a seedling on Earth while their captain exalts “This is called ‘farming’! You kids are going to grow all kinds of plants: vegetable plants, pizza plants!” In the biblical story, Adam was cursed with mortality: “for dust you are, and to dust you will return." However, the humans of WALL-E are willing to risk death for a chance to return to earth. For example, AUTO, trying to dissuade the captain from returning to Earth, says “On the Axiom you will survive.” To this, the human captain replies “I don’t want to survive! I want to live!”

Despite all that I have written, there is one theme in WALL-E which is synonymous with the biblical story. When Adam is first created, “he placed him in the Garden of Eden to work it and to guard it.” This verse implies that Adam has a responsibility to care for nature, an ecological duty. In the movie WALL-E, the human captain realizes that humanity has forsaken their responsibility by polluting and abandoning Earth. When the captain is watering the seedling which EVE retrieved from earth, he remarks “There you go little guy. You came a long way for a drink of water... Just needed someone to look after you, that's all--” and then glances symbolically at a globe of Earth lying on the floor. Even in the world of WALL-E, every human has an inherent responsibility to take care of the earth.

Though I earlier compared the Axiom to Eden, in some ways, Earth too has the capacity to become an Eden, if humanity works it and guards it. This is expressed in one of the last images of the film, a painting in which WALL-E and EVE stand in a green landscape, in the shade of a giant tree. By cultivating the earth, humanity has nurtured a new tree of life and created their own Eden.