The best eco-movie of the year — and the worst

wall-e-command.jpgThe best eco-movie of the year is Disney/Pixar’s Wall-E — easily one of the best movie dystopias ever. It ranks with Blade Runner, Brazil, A Clockwork Orange, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, the Matrix, Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green, and the first two Terminator movies.

Yes, Hollywood loves dystopias. Perhaps because it is one (okay, technically Hollywood is an anti-utopia).

The worst eco-movie of the year for me was Quantum of Solace. I had been somewhat hopeful upon learning the villain was a green-washing “eco-entrepreneur.” But as a huge James Bond fan, I was quite disappointed. The writing and directing were dreadful, among the worst of the entire series. The story line was incoherent. The characters’ motivations were opaque. And the direction of the action scenes suffered from the Jason Bourne syndrome — way too much fast-cutting.

craig.jpgI still like the grittiness of Daniel Craig — his Bond is much more like Ian Fleming imagined in his books than anyone since the Sean Connery of the early movies. Still, the gritty realism is undercut again and again as one guy with a pistol keeps beating a dozen guys with machine guns — not something you find much in the books.

Environmentally, one incidental character did mention global warming in passing. The only “good” eco-point the movie “exposed” was the danger of hydrogen fuel cells. But even that was an absurd contrivance — with a hotel in the middle of nowhere apparently keeping hydrogen in every room. I’m afraid that’s less plausible than the repeated pistol victories.

As for the brilliantly crafted Wall-E, the movie deserves special attention for two reasons:

One is that we can expect to see more environmental dystopias as the painful reality of global warming becomes more and more obvious to all (see “ What are the near-term climate Pearl Harbors?“). Wall-E makes clear that even the most brutal satire of our self-inflicted environmental predicament can be a box office success, if it is well done. The second reason is the incredible irony of Disney making this movie.

As a film it is superb, a must see for children and adults. Critically acclaimed, it received a rare 96% on Rotten Tomatoes. The New Yorker‘s tough-to-please David Denby writes:

Watching Pixar’s animated film “WALL-E” must be a humbling experience for other filmmakers, because it demonstrates not just the number but the variety of ideas you need to make a terrific movie.

This may be the only major movie ever made that is both a dystopia and anti-utopia. In the dystopic first half, we see a lifeless post-eco-apocalyptic Earth overrun by toxic garbage, which is collected and compacted by our robotic hero, WALL-E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter-Earth-Class). WALL-E has become sentient by collecting and studying the waste of humanity, including an old tape of the movie Hello Dolly he plays over and over again.

In the anti-utopic second half, the megacorporation Buy ‘N Large had created a seeming paradise for humans on board “Executive Starliners” where every task has become automated. But hundreds of years after what was supposed to be a brief exodus while Earth was cleaned up, humans have become “a flabby mass of peabrained idiots who are literally too fat to walk.” These lazy, overweight video-addicts — whoever could the moviemakers be talking about? — are less human than WALL-E.

Though criticized by some conservatives as anti-capitalist, WALL-E is perhaps best described as one of the most anti-consumption movies ever made. That’s why even Michael Gerson, a Former Bush speechwriter known for his evangelical moralism, loved the movie and saw it as a daring attack on “a culture of consumption.”

As much as I loved the movie, I did find an odd disjunction….

Yes, the movie is a brutal satire on “self-involved consumption.” But if we are looking at who in the world is responsible for self-involved consumption, for the global homogenization of mass consumerism, for instigating the shop-until-you-drop culture at an early age, surely Disney itself would be on the short list.

Indeed, you can go to and find lots of mass consumer junk delightful Wall-E toys. For a mere $63.99 plus shipping and handling, you can indoctrinate buy your prospective mass consumer precocious child a U Command Wall-E (featured above), which was one of most popular Toys on amazon this year.

[I am happy to say my child (so far) only owns one of the top 50 most popular Toys & GamesLeapFrog® Learn & Groove® Musical Table, which is not at all junk and in fact quite educational and hopefully we will hand it down to someone else’s child blah, blah, blah.]

Our culture is going to undergo a remarkable transformation over the next few decades. Either we will proactively embrace an efficiency, conservation, and clean energy revolution starting in the first term of President Obama. Or a culture of scarcity will be forced upon us sometime during Planetary Purgatory (see “Anti-science conservatives must be stopped“). I am not so rosy-eyed as to see the former as a utopia, but the latter will most certainly be a dystopia grim as any ever envisioned.

One final point: In terms of carbon footprint, animated movies are obviously about as low as they come, whereas the over-the-top, all-over-the-world Bond movies are about as high as they come. Perhaps not a big deal in the grand scheme of things today–but maybe by the year 2030 or so it will be.

10 Responses to The best eco-movie of the year — and the worst

  1. Larry Coleman says:

    The themes were dear to my heart, as they were to Joe and many others, but I did not end up so enthusiastic about the movie. The first part, on Earth, was creative and deserves all the accolades it has received. The space part was less successful. The main idea of consumerism was quickly and devastatingly made but that was about it (other than the sweet, forgettable romance). The sustained freshness of the first part was replaced by action-for-action’s sake, clearly to appeal to teens, which it surely did. I gave it three out of five stars at Netflix. I would be happy for others to tell me why I am wrong and an old grouch.

  2. Drew says:

    Loved WALL-E too.

    Of course, the big story on Earth right now is a growing human society running into ecological limits of many types (oil, water, climate, toxics, etc). I found it interesting that the Disney writer chose a relatively a-political “limit” — trash disposal. Seemed to work as an accessible way to explore sustainability.

  3. Zane Selvans says:

    I think WALL-E is probably more a product of Pixar (and Steve Jobs’ culture) than Disney. It’ll be interesting to see if Pixar is able to maintain the critical tone of its movies under Disney.

  4. David B. Benson says:

    Think of removing CO2 from the air as another form of trash disposal.

  5. Rick C says:

    I loved WALL-E because it had an endearing story to it, love, which is universal but it touched people with regard the environment the way the 1972 film “Silent Running” did with the loss of natural habitat. Essentially nautural habitats were launced into space housed in geodesic spheres with the hope that they would one day be tranplanted on earth. In fact the robot WALL-E closely resembles the robots, Huey, Duey and Luey in the movie.

    After WALL-E the next dystopian film on my A-list is “Soylent Green”. I have it in my DVD collection and man it still depresses the hell out of me.

  6. Phil Gross says:

    Wall-E is one of my favorite movies, and I thoroughly agree with most of your opinions, but I was a bit thrown by your final point, that the carbon footprint of animated films are “as low as they come”. For traditional animation, I would definitely agree, but a modern, top-quality CG film means a giant data center crunching rendering tasks 24/365 for a year or two.

    I would be interested in knowing what the actual kwh cost of a film like Wall-E is, and whether it’s going down (due to lower-power cpus/gpus and better datacenter efficiencies) or up (due to much more complex graphics in each frame).

  7. Lars says:

    You only mention two films?!

  8. walle says:

    Wall-E inspired me and my family. I would like to see the green community partner with Pixar to make Wall-E a standing earth day symbol – perhaps an Ad Council short.



  9. Charles says:

    Yes, Wall-e was at the top of my list. I own a small production company and we just wrapped our eco-friendly TV pilot for preschoolers. I just can’t imagine working on projects that don’t have an eco-awareness built into them at this point. The quicker that young people start on a green path, the better off we will be.

    I hope your list is much longer next year!

    PS- the Ad Council idea is a great one.

  10. Bob Wallace says:

    “Think of removing CO2 from the air as another form of trash disposal.”

    OK, now think about the scale of applying that analogy to our atmospheric problem. Think about the number of “garbage trucks” we’re going to need. And the size of the landfills.

    Now consider the fact that we don’t even know how to build those garbage trucks.