Do thinking machines enhance our humanity or rob us of it? While those of us who benefit from our computerized society may choose to ignore this existential question, the very existence of Pixar, the animation studio whose movies contain nothing but images wrought with thinking machines, depends on the answer. And in their latest animated feature, WALL-E, Pixar has confronted this question and answered it with an unambiguous, "Yes."
WALL-E, if you haven't figured it out yet, is a robot--a robot who has the most pointless job in the universe, compacting mountains of trash on a deserted planet Earth. Since WALL-E appears to be the last of his kind, we don't know how long he has been at his programmed destiny, but somewhere along the way he has developed a penchant for collecting human artifacts. One of his favorites is a VCR of the movie Hello, Dolly!, which he enjoys watching before he powers down for the night.
This is one of the few shots of non-animated footage incorporated into the film. As we see WALL-E longingly gazing at the romantic couples, wondering if he, too, could hold hands; we also get a glimpse of the animators at Pixar, longing to attain to the artistic value and humanity of classic, live-action filmmaking. The fact the we even consider a robot to be a "he" and interpret his emotions--though no discernible words are spoken during this first portion of the film--as "pining" or "lonely" shows that Pixar can and has created great art.
WALL-E's recongition of the possibility of love begins a journey that will see him transcend the limitations of his designated function and become, ultimately, human. Meanwhile, in outer space, humanity is waiting on a starship for earth to return to normal. It was their over-consumption that made their home uninhabitable.
On the spaceship, every person's needs and desires are satisfied by a flawless fleet of robots--food, clothing, transportation, communication, entertainment--every ones experience is mediated through an electronic matrix that does the thinking (and the doing) for them. It would appear that WALL-E is not the only one in the universe with a pointless existence, that is, unless you consider endless consumption to be a valid purpose for life. Humanity has gladly allowed the thinking machines they built to strip them of intimacy, passion, creativity, and everything that makes them human, including their bodies.
By removing the need for live, human bodies before the lens, or live, human fingers on the animator's brush; do computer animated films become a less human art form? One could also ask if Hollywood casting directors have lost touch with something important about humanity when they turn away highly skilled actors because their bodies don't have the right look? Or whether the factory process of hand-drawn animation, where hundreds of animators produce cells like robots, is inherently more artistic than computer generated images?
With WALL-E, computer animation has self-consciously declared that it is an art form to be taken seriously. As the closing-credit sequence, which tours us through a history of visual art, demonstrates, computers are just one in a long line of tools what humanity has used to express itself. And each new tool presents us with an ethical question of how to use it.
Will we use computers as a tool to extend our passion, intimacy, and creativity, or will we limit them to an escapist substitute for true humanity? Pixar has made up their mind on which course to follow and is blazing the trail. In the process, they have created a masterpiece.
[After you see the film, I recommend listening to this fascinating interview with the director of WALL-E, Andrew Stanton.]