The common theme of the three films Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, WALL-E, and The Age of Stupid is that the human race is fighting a losing battle against time, the most valuable currency that no one knows how to spend. These films all criticize humanity for its irresponsible conduct in reshaping the world and causing climate change but what ties the three together is our interaction, as an audience, with the urgent and logical progression of time created in the films. Upon watching these films, what intrigued me the most is how the directors and producers varied their depictions of the human race’s approach to its own inevitable demise to appeal to different audiences. As storytellers, the directors bring attention to a variety of perspectives, through their specific word choice in the scripts, visuals and soundtracks, and through the progression of strong plotlines with relatable characters. What makes these films wonderful is their ability to elicit emotional responses from the audiences they have chosen by conveying their purpose in a way that reminds people what it means to be truly human: we are together in our struggle against time.
In the story of the 2008 animated feature film from Pixar Studios’, WALL-E, the human race has abandoned the Earth and has flown off into space on a vessel called the Axiom. What makes this one of Pixar’s masterpieces is the universality of the message proven by the film’s success worldwide. The script is a work of art, littered with hints and foreshadowing for what’s to come and full of allusions for what has happened. For example, the name of the ship, the Axiom, comes from the Greek, axíōma, ‘that which commends itself as evident’ (Horne, 2018). Moreover, one particular line of the captain’s, “We have to go back”(WALL-E, 67:03-67:05) , is especially significant when focus is placed on the word, “We”. This one word takes responsibility off of one person and places it squarely on the shoulders of everybody and effectively establishes the captain as the spokesperson for humanity in the movie but also for the audience.
The visuals speak to the power of the script, “reading between the lines” becomes important for animators and voice actors as they bring the characters to life on screen. The body language of the characters and the voice intonations they use to communicate with each other bring the audience members into the space with them as though they are there themselves. The soundtrack, scored by Thomas Newman, is beautiful, whimsical, and fits the storyline and audience. What makes the music perfect for the movie is its ability to conjure up memories and nostalgia. This immersion into an imaginary world allows the audience to empathize more strongly with the captain in his curiosity about “dirt” (51:31-51:32) or “dancing” (61:43-61:46) and understand the feelings in the relationship between EVE and WALL-E.
As WALL-E is arguably a love story, the most relatable and most common type of story, its premise lends greater depth to the plot than the average Disney animated feature usually manages. Although the story takes place in a world where humans have ruined the Earth, the romance of WALL-E and EVE acts as the catalyst that would start a chain reaction. Every character that comes in contact with WALL-E has scales fall from their eyes. Marie and John stop travelling along the lines of the ship and begin speaking face to face, the defective robots rally behind the couple and sing their theme, and the captain finds the strength to literally stand up for himself and fight the autopilot of the axiom. As the different actors in the plot mobilize near the end of the film, they race together with WALL-E against time.
In the 1984 film adaptation of Hayao Miyazaki’s manga serialization, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, the human race finds itself thinking “It’s only a matter of time” and the message that the director gives the audience can be summed up in a word, “futility”. This concept, that to fight would be meaningless because everything will end anyways, is for a more mature audience. The film begins with the premise:
1000 years ago, civilization collapsed…The ruined ocean came to be called the Wasteland, and, giving off poisonous vapor, its forest of fungi spreads, until it threatens the existence of the declining human race(Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, 2:41-2:58).
Thus setting the stage for a war over finite resources.
The purpose of the film is embodied in the title character, Nausicaä, who loses faith in the humanity of killing and hatred while questioning “Who could have polluted the whole Earth?”(33:09-33:12) but later, because of her love and compassion eventually chooses to continue supporting humans despite how dangerous they may be. It would be easier to stop, to deny it, and to look away but Nausicaä simply says “It’s so beautiful. It’s hard to believe [it] could kill me”(8:25-8:27). Her use of the word, “beautiful”, befittingly describes her appreciation of even those that cause suffering. Nausicaä’s goals are simple: she travels to the forest in hopes of finding a cure for her father’s illness, she stops a war between the Tolmekians and the Pejite because she believes that killing is wrong, and she saves her enemies lives time and again because she believes that all people deserve a second chance. Unlike the nations of Tolmekia and Pejite, who use fire to incinerate the toxic forests and live through violence and domination of nature, the people of the Valley of the Wind live sustainably alongside it. The village elders make this comparison when they say:
The fire will turn the forest to ash in one day..For hundreds of years, the forest was nurtured by water and wind…We like the way of water and wind…(93:53-94:00)
To further emphasize Nausicaä’s point of view, her theme Tori no Hito or The Bird Man, is played, as well as its reprise, throughout the movie at each point of reconciliation of conflict. The music swells with Nausicaä’s emotions reaching its climax as the plot does, just as planned. Joe Hisaishi’s score pairs with Miyazaki’s imagery to elicit a greater emotional response in audiences. This is best realized in the final scene of the movie when the children describe the prophecy come to life to the village wise woman.
In the 2009 docudrama, The Age of Stupid, the human race has largely been wiped out by a great scourge; itself. The narrator, an archivist for the future, is leaving a video recording with the question “Why didn’t we stop climate change when we had the chance?”(78:16-78:18) and bleakly toys with the idea that “we [aren’t] sure if we [are] worth saving”(78:23-78:25).
Matching this tone, the archivist never speaks in future tense during the film as though there is no future to speak of. The movie is like a highlight reel of human history as the archivist reflects on lives poorly lived. The director, Franny Armstrong, brings attention to how badly humans spend their lifetimes. Armstrong sets the time period relatively close to our present day, 2055, to allow for the use footage from actual broadcasts or documentaries and to grant credibility to the docudrama. The most powerful scene in the film is created by blurring the lines between fact and fiction. She depicts the years slowly counting up with an overlay of news headlines and disasters and catastrophes that were counted as “impossible” but became “plausible”. The more realistic the drama becomes the more the movie becomes a documentary of a possible future.
Armstrong showcases real people playing themselves to show that people not unlike ourselves are deeply affected by the consequences of continuing “business as usual” and to allow audiences to empathize with the characters we see on screen. Citing the fact that humans have trouble dealing with concepts where we do not see change immediately, Armstrong asserts that denial of climate change, denial of the passage of time, will be humanity’s fatal decision.
As we struggle against the flow of time, we use films like these to understand ourselves and our hypothetical approaches to our own inevitable and collective demise. The directors of each of these three films show humanity different scenarios of what we could become using their scripts, scores and scenes, and storylines. WALL-E reminds everyone of the will to hope, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind redeems us in the face of futile conflict, and The Age of Stupid shows us what lies in store for us if we do not spend our short time here on this Earth as wisely as we know we can. Time, the most valuable currency, is a complex interaction that we gain a better understanding of when we imagine a different world, for better or for worse.