Wall-E, Feet of Clay, and What It Means to Be Human

It’s no secret among people who know me that Pixar’s Wall-E is quite possibly my favorite movie of all time. Usually, the most detail I have to give in explaining my love of the film is just squealing “OMG cute robot love story”. I like to think that everyone who knows me sees why that’s appealing. But there’s really quite a lot more to it than that. One of my favorite narrative devices is exploring and evaluating what it means to be human, especially in sci-fi and fantasy. In my personal experience, those genres hold the most potential to be optimistic about the human experience.

When rereading Feet of Clay, of the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett, I realized how much the use of the golems in the book reminded me of the robots in Wall-E, especially the ways in which they interact with humans. Originating in Jewish mythology, golems are clay workers given life and purpose by the words written inside their heads. Feet of Clay follows the golems’ quest for freedom and equality with flesh-and-blood people. Wall-E is, of course, a love story, but it’s also about these robots leading humanity back to Earth and finding their origins, while at the same time gaining sentience themselves.

One of the first commonalities that struck me was the subservience/dependency present in these works. It’s obvious in Wall-E that the robots are a subservient working class, even though the humans would be quite helpless without them. While the humans of Discworld are less directly reliant on their golems, they still refuse to rid themselves of what they consider to be blasphemous, unnatural magic because they’re just too useful to destroy. I know it’s a drastic comparison to make, but it does remind me of the arguments against abolishing slavery pre-Civil War. With our current, modern morality, we know it’s wrong to use people as mere tools, but where do we draw that line? Particularly intelligent animals, like dolphins and great apes? How to we prove and quantify that intelligence? Robots? Where’s the sentience limit on personhood? I’m not suggesting that we start paying our Roombas wages any time soon, but I think it’s something to be aware of as our technology advances and we become more aware of intelligences besides our own.

Another big similarity is the purpose of these workers. Golems are given both life and their rules by their “chem” or scroll of words encased in their heads. Robots are clearly just programmed with a directive. Both are initially presented as being unable to disobey these fundamental orders, but that’s quickly shown to be false in both works. The golems perhaps more blatantly disobey their chems, as they start “skiving off” work and become capable of directly lying about their holy days. The robots of Wall-E, I think, simply redefine their directives. When EVE tosses the plant away in the trash compactor, she reaffirms that Wall-E and the love between them are her new top priority directive. It’s not that their original missions become unimportant to them, though. The golems still want to work, EVE still wants to complete her job with the plant, it’s just that they want to do so on their own terms, which I think is a very human desire.

The third big point that I want to bring up is the methods of communication used in these works. As a linguistics major, I’m pretty biased in saying that language and communication are quite central to being human. Both the golems and the robots are limited in regards to speech, so it’s interesting to see how they overcome that. The golems of Feet of Clay are built without tongues, and so do all their communication by writing on slates carries with them at all times. When a golem gains ownership of himself, he shows the first inklings of speech, but is not fully capable of it until a human rebuilds him to have a tongue (now free, speech is literally gifted unto him by his previous masters). Quite a big deal is made of this, with one antagonist calling it blasphemy. In a very poignant moment, one of the main characters responds, “That’s what people say when the voiceless speak.” The robots of Wall-E, on the other hand, are verbally capable, though presumably only the words that have been programmed into them. It’s an extremely limited vocabulary, only things related to their functions as workers, as far as we see. We do see, in a few small quiet moments, Wall-E and EVE using other forms of expression for concepts that would not have been in their programming, like “love” and “goodbye”. Hand-holding is of course an important motif in their story, but more subtle is how she says goodbye to him. At the end, when she believes his memory and personality have been wiped clean, she holds him close and hums a few notes of the song from Hello Dolly that they had shared earlier in the film. She uses new things she’s learned for other than their literal intention when her programming fails her. This is remarkably similar to the natural evolution of metaphor in language.

It’s worth mentioning, I think, that both the golems and the robots are creations of humans who turned out to be much more like us than we ever intended. Some might view this as a curse, or as previously stated, blasphemy (see the number of robot revolt movies out there), but I’d prefer to see it as a blessing. I’m a humanist to the core, and the burden of sentience is a heavy one for one species to bear. I think it would be nice to share it, and be a little less lonely in the world. I would love to think that it is this wistful thinking that drives us onwards, just a desire for companionship in the universe, and the thinking that “human” and “person” don’t need to be synonyms anymore.

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