Now that Pixar's latest, Up, is out, can I take a moment to sound off about its last movie, the Academy Award-winning WALL-E?
I wanted to like WALL-E, really. He's adorable, and an incredibly expressive animated entertainer. But the movie that he's featured in is just brimming with so much bad science fiction that I found it impossible to enjoy.
WALL-E's central milieu is ecology. His creators imagine an Earth where no plant life exists. Why? Well, we don't really learn why. And this is likely because there is no good answer. In my opinion, the filmmakers have badly shortchanged Mother Nature, because anything toxic enough to wipe out all plant life (poison from trash, radiation flare, etc.) would finish us off long before it took out all the plants.
And what about oceanic plant life, or fungi? When it comes to WALL-E, we just don't know. WALL-E's creators treat ecology as though it were a simple light switch, with just two positions, on and off, rather than a complex network of many different interlocking factors that feed back on each other.
Unfortunately, the problems don't stop with ecology. Take another look at the scene where EVE's spaceship leaves Earth, with WALL-E in tow on its exterior. The ship crashes through a screen of floating junk just outside Earth's atmosphere. Space clutter in Earth orbit is a real and very important problem, but the thing about being in orbit is that unless you're parked at one of the Lagrange points, the points where Earth's and the Sun's gravitational fields balance out, you have to be in motion to be in orbit. Otherwise you're falling to Earth. Gravity grants no exceptions! Perhaps I missed something, but to my eye, none of the junk that the spaceship goes crashing through appears to have the slightest velocity until the spaceship crashes into it.
One more problem, and a theme will emerge: in one of the instructional videos from Buy 'n' Large's long-dead president, he notes with embarrassment that the colonist's time aboard the Axiom will have weakened their bones because of zero gravity. Once again, this is a real problem. Being in zero gravity does actually weaken human bones, and NASA physicians will have to devise a way to counteract it if we ever want to send someone to Mars or off any other long-term space venture. The problem in applying this in WALL-E: the colonists aren't in zero gravity--they have artificial gravity! Just watch the way pieces of shattered glass fall to the floor in the robot repair ward, or how the colonists slide down the deck when the Axiom gets tilted during the movie's climactic struggle.
There's much more bad sci-fi in WALL-E that I haven't yet touched on, like the foolishness of only checking Earth for plant life and not looking at planets orbiting other stars, or the vaguely sinister puzzle of how a race of slug-a-beds pays or otherwise motivates the corporation that keeps it inert and unproductive.
As a lifetime science-fiction fan, I can and often have swallowed heaping helpings of scientific nonsense in the name of enjoying a good book or movie.* Perhaps the thing that made WALL-E impossible for me to like was not so much the sheer volume of bad science but that WALL-E's creators kept including real-world scientific issues and challenges and then hopelessly messing them up.
*I'm worried my tolerance for scientific nonsense may be dropping as I get older, but that's a subject for another column, a horror piece that I might want to call “I Was a Middle-Aged Fuddy-Dud.”