by J J Cohen
A. O. Scott, in an eloquent review of the new film Wall-E in the NYT:
[Tangent: a few months ago we allowed Alex to watch about thirty minutes of I Am Legend. He became so distraught halfway through that we offered him the chance to go to bed instead of continuing. He took us up on that offer ... and last night, for the third time, came to our bedside because he'd awakened from a nightmare about the film and couldn't get back to sleep. Damn Emma Thompson and those mutated zombies she created.]
The first 40 minutes or so of “Wall-E” — in which barely any dialogue is spoken, and almost no human figures appear on screen — is a cinematic poem of such wit and beauty that its darker implications may take a while to sink in. The scene is an intricately rendered city, bristling with skyscrapers but bereft of any inhabitants apart from a battered, industrious robot and his loyal cockroach sidekick. Hazy, dust-filtered sunlight illuminates a landscape of eerie, post-apocalyptic silence. This is a world without people, you might say without animation, though it teems with evidence of past life.
We’ve grown accustomed to expecting surprises from Pixar, but “Wall-E” surely breaks new ground. It gives us a G-rated, computer-generated cartoon vision of our own potential extinction. It’s not the only film lately to engage this somber theme. As the earth heats up, the vanishing of humanity has become something of a hot topic, a preoccupation shared by directors like Steven Spielberg (“A.I.”), Francis Lawrence (“I Am Legend”), M. Night Shyamalan (“The Happening”) and Werner Herzog. In his recent documentary “Encounters at the End of the World” Mr. Herzog muses that “the human presence on this planet is not really sustainable,” a sentiment that is voiced, almost verbatim, in the second half of “Wall-E.” When the whimsical techies at Pixar and a moody German auteur are sending out the same message, it may be time to pay attention.
Scott presents a compelling case that we are culturally obsessed with thinking about the world beyond our own vanishing (the sales figures for the book to which I just linked also make such a case). If thinking the earthly apocalypse has trickled all the way to kid films, it must be on our collective minds.
Blog readers know that a version of this question addressed to the Middle Ages has long preoccupied me. Was it possible for medieval people to think of the world emptied of their presence? I have been wondering about the possibility of medieval or prehistoric people sending messages (textual, artistic, architectural) beyond the "event horizon" of their own disappearance. Related to this question is another: can the far future be thought beyond the apocalypse as narrated by scripture and as fleshed out via accumulated exegesis? Is there a way to place Armageddon to the side as the singular and ineluctable future in which the present must culminate? Can this pregiven end be bracketed or ignored, and a future that simply (and in a more lonely, less world-encompassing way) does not include the presence of your people and history be envisioned? Or must the future be an infinite extension of the present to the point of apocalypse?
I hope that makes sense. What I'm really asking you, readers, is do you think that medieval people could conceptualize the world without them? Could they do it without simply reiterating received and hallowed eschatology? Or was the only way to contemplate the world differently configured through the invention of parallel presents, of Other Worlds containing strange people who were actually themselves in other guises?