Updated: Sep 23, 2020
It has recently come to my attention that not many people are aware of the fact Andrew Stanton’s WALL-E (2008) is full of allusions to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). In fact, I would argue that WALL-E is a reimagining of 2001. This is nothing new, and I'm certain others have written about the similarities between the two films before; but, in case you didn't know, here are some of the parallels between the films.
While animation replaced the very impressive live-action from 2001, a reasonable shift considering the target demographic for WALL-E, the overall thematic and argument of the films are the same: Machines have become more sentient and have more agency than their human counterparts. In 2001, this is exemplified through a number of cinematic choices such as very limited dialogue (much of which is spoken by HAL, the Heuristically Programmed ALgorithmic Computer), the stoicism of the characters, the control HAL has over the ship and crew, and the extraterrestrial black monolith which the film suggests is the catalyst for continued human evolution.
This theme of machines being more human than humans is certainly echoed in Wall-E, as the heavily personified WALL-E and EVE demonstrate. WALL-E has more wants, desires, and emotions than any other character in the film, that is until he manages to awake the massive masses; and even then, who is it that pulls humans out of their superficial, virtual reality world? WALL-E. Who shows people how to be people again? WALL-E.
Furthermore, there are no human villains or antagonists in WALL-E or 2001. The villain/antagonist in both films is, of course, a machine; in 2001 it’s HAL and in WALL-E it is Auto the autopilot function on the Axiom starliner. This is one of the more blatant allusions to 2001 in WALL-E, as Auto looks and acts exactly like HAL. Even the final confrontation, the climax of the film, is identical to that in 2001: Man must confront and surpass machine in order to regain his humanity and continue to evolve.
In 2001, Dave (Keir Dullea) is forced to manually deactivate HAL who murdered the entire crew on the spaceship. When Dave is in the process of shutting HAL down, we get some of the most telling and surprisingly impactful dialogue.
This is when HAL’s personification is complete. Despite his robotic voice, HAL’s anxiety is palpable as he pleads Dave to stop, “I’m afraid, Dave.” What’s magnificent is that as Dave disconnects HAL, he also comforts him, encouraging him to sing the song his “instructor” taught him. This is one of Dave’s most emotional moments; he genuinely feels terrible for having to deactivate HAL, they had, afterall, an established rapport throughout the film.
In WALL-E, the Captain must take on Auto who is under direct, albeit outdated, orders not to return to planet Earth under any circumstances, as it is beyond saving. Upon realizing Earth is habitable, the Captain must disable the autopilot function so he can manually steer the Axiom home. Of course, Auto puts up one hell of a fight.
During this confrontation, we get yet another obvious allusion to 2001, the use of “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” a tone poem composed by Richard Strauss. In 2001, the song is played every time mankind evolves or grows in some way, the same is true in WALL-E; when the Captain literally stands up for the first time right before he fights Auto into submission, “Also Sprach Zarathustra” is playing.
“The Blue Danube” by Johann Strauss II is also prominently featured in 2001 and then briefly featured during the “Status Report” scene in WALL-E.
Both films are ultimately about rebirth, about having focused on technological advancement and the material so much that humanity itself, the only thing that makes advancement worth it, has all but disappeared. At the end of both films, humanity is reborn. In 2001, it is demonstrated through an elderly dying Dave turning into the Star Child after interacting with the monolith, “Also Sprach Zararhustra” is, of course, playing during this scene.
In WALL-E, it is demonstrated through the Axiom and the people’s return to a blossoming planet Earth which is once again habitable.
One thing WALL-E does in addition to commenting on the potential drawbacks of technological advancement is present a clear critique of our consumer-driven, capitalist society. Buy-N-Large essentially controls everyone on the Axiom; the megacorporation tells them what to buy, how to act, and how to think (seems vaguely familiar and relevant these days . . .). WALL-E is also an unapologetic warning about climate change; if we continue to obsessively buy and consume thus supporting the industries that most contribute to our carbon footprint, we will ultimately destroy the planet.
While WALL-E is clearly alluding to and thus honoring 2001, they are both unique films with different but effective styles. WALL-E won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature of the Year and received 5 other nominations in 2008 while 2001: A Space Odyssey won the Academy Award for Best Effects, Special Visual Effects and received 3 other nominations in 1969. If you haven’t seen these films, I highly suggest you do. For those who have seen them, maybe give them a re-watch and look out for all of the fun similarities.