There are underdogs and then there are underdogs. It is eight hundred years in the future. Earth is a toxic, dusty junkyard, awash in Himalayas of refuse, and the only one left to do the job of cleaning it all up is a waist-high, trash-compacting robot who goes by the name of WALL·E (for “Waste Allocation Load Lifter—Earth Class”). The humans who made such a mess out of their planet have long since absconded to starships where they have spent the intervening centuries being waited on hand and foot by other robots. The combination of low gravity and nonstop pampering has transformed the passengers on this “luxury cruise” into bloated parodies of themselves, baby-like fatties who are so lazy that they’ve lost any sense of what being human is all about. In his solitude, ironically, WALL·E has been evolving in the opposite direction. Over the years he has become sentient.
It’s a funny thing about sentience, though. One side effect of self-awareness is that you become aware of the absence of others, and even as he keeps making the rounds this workhorse robot longs for a sense of connection. Since there aren’t any other intelligent beings around, WALL·E, like so many present-day humans, seeks solace in the movies. He’s become an impassioned collector of odd human artifacts, and one of his most treasured finds turns out to be, of all things, a battered videocassette of the twentieth-century musical Hello, Dolly!
This immersion in 1960s camp primes him for his encounter with EVE, aka “Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator,” a robot probe that has been automatically dispatched to Earth to check for signs that life has returned. WALL·E and EVE are the perfect Hollywood couple. She’s a smooth white egg with mysterious powers and weightless grace; he’s a clodhopper, a Chaplinesque klutz whose good-natured persistence and purity of intention somehow enable him to triumph. At first EVE is all business; their meet-cute, which is punctuated by a mushroom cloud, will be a hard one for future screenwriters to beat. But WALL·E’s wooing—and the courage with which he follows her back to the mother ship to help her fulfill her mission—end up persuading her that intelligence isn’t just about following your prime directive. It turns out that it’s hard to be a thinking being without also picking up emotion, awareness, the sense of possibility—and the desire for companionship.
This notion of nonhuman beings blessed, or cursed, with a human spark has a long history, of course. It runs from the great creation myths through fairy tales (and their Disneyfied variants like Pinocchio and The Little Mermaid) and all the way up to characters like Mr. Spock and Commander Data of the Star Trek franchise. It’s a lineage that’s also rich in darker variations, from Frankenstein …