Thursday, April 17, 2014

Do You Have Robotic Hands?

Suzanne Warr

I watched the Disney Pixar movie WALL-E for the very first time a couple weeks ago, and absolutely adored it!  How’d we miss it the first time?  I don’t know…probably ‘cause we were doing some nonsensical thing like building a house or moving (since we’ve done a fair amount of that!), or just didn't have anyone robot-crazy just then to push for it.

But beyond finding the movie being terribly clever, and loving that they made a whole feature film about R2-D2, I thought it had some lovely, deep, and moving insights.  One for another day is the fascinating implications of the people needing to rediscover their humanity through two sweet little robots—but, despite that tease, I want to focus today on hands.

Let’s talk about how the screenwriters of WALL-E developed their theme and brought it to our attention.  First there was of course WALL-E’s very human interaction with what others would see as junk, and the sense of hope with which he collected each treasure.  His connection to these precious items was tactile, and he turned them in his robotic hands the way a toddler explores some new bit of wonder with their pudgy fingers.  It was also how he interacted with his little roach friend—first reaching out, with his hand.  At this point the writers had consciously or unconsciously settled in our minds that WALL-E’s hands were the way he gave his hope and dreams reality, the way he reached beyond his limitations toward a brighter, richer existence.  I suspect it’s also part of why he alone, of all the WALL-Es, had survived.

Next we have the entrance of EVE, who at first has no hands but only a blaster and an eye scanner.  But each time EVE interacts with the world of precious things which WALL-E has discovered, she turns her flipper-like side arm into a hand.  Her hands are more graceful than WALL-E’s, and in this grace she’s able to interact with his ‘stuff’ more like an adult would.  A speckled rubik’s cube quickly becomes a solved puzzle, without mystery, and the light bulb takes on its function and glows.  In her speed and ability, she whizzes past much of WALL-Es wonder, but because he cares so much she cares, too.

Later in the film—and just in case anyone’s needs it, here’s your SPOILER alert!—we have those touching moments (pun intended) when people’s hands touch, and their eyes startle upward as their souls connect.  But they also begin to live fully as their hands do other things, like struggle with robotic indifference so they can return to earth, catch cascading babies, and pass a much needed tool back to the little robot who’s trying to save them all.  And finally, it is with their hands that they pat the tiny plant into the ground and begin truly living again.

But what about those little robots, what are they doing while the humans rediscover that rich link between growing as people and growing things from the ground?  EVE is trying to save WALL-E, in a massive surgery of sorts that leaves him more replaced than not.  And while it appears to be successful…he’s not WALL-E.  He doesn’t know his own treasures, and callously crushes them.  He’s just another mindless robot with no sense of hope, or desire to reach.

Until EVE fits her hand to his, providing the connection he sought all along.  Then, and only then, does WALL-E wake up to who he is, and know her.

All through the movie this lovely theme was carried out, as important changes occurred when two hands connected.  It reminded me of soft baby hands, and how they’ve grown into hands larger than mine.  And from that I heard echoes of the lessons my Grandpa taught, and how he’d take the hand of a grandchild and place it against his, and show them how big their hands were getting and prompt them to make sure their hands were doing good work as they grew.   At any rate, the image of hands touching is burned into my soul and will stay with me, guiding my hands.

For now I’ve set myself the tasking of watching people’s hands, and thinking beyond the mechanics of physical interaction to the meaning behind each touch.  I’m excited to take those observations and use them in my personal life, but of course I’ll extend that to my desktop—where I write with my hands—and to my writing board, as well!

What do you notice when you watch a movie?  What about when you people watch?


  1. I love that movie, and I just love your thread about instinctive connection and pointing out how they personified the robots using touches even without hands. Sometimes we get so lost in our own minds we forget to reach out and connect--but how lost we would be without our sense of touch, and how much our children (and we) crave it! Thank you for the great reminder.

  2. I haven't seen Wall-E in years. But when I do watch it again--I will do so with these thoughts in mind. Thanks for sharing them. :) We do get lost when we don't tether ourselves to what is important. :)