A material ropeway is an aerial device that is often used in coal mining operations to transport goods across long distances. Material ropeways differ from aerial ropeways and other transportation devices in that the contents they carry are not passengers but objects. The nature of these devices, their non-human cargo coupled with the relation to coal extraction and its impact on the environment, means that their prominence in Wes Anderson’s stop motion animated film Isle of Dogs from2018 carries with it thematic significance and depth (see figure 1).
Isle of Dogs follows a group of dogs, headed by Chief, as they help a child named Atari find his missing canine. The animation is set on the borders of a dystopian Japan in the aptly titled ‘trash island’, an industrial wasteland and dumping ground for the detritus of the fictional city of Megasaki. Throughout the film, there is a diversity of transportation depicted. Trains are seen zipping through the futuristic metropolitan, cars and trucks are used by the militarized police, drones fly overhead, and the young boy Atari, referred to as the ‘little pilot’ arrives on the island via propeller plane. Material ropeways, too, feature in the background of nearly every shot and in several key moments of the story, pushing the characters along the narrative journey as well as their emotional arcs.
In Megasaki dogs have been decreed illegal by the new mayor in an attempt to quell a dog flu that is ravaging the population, and through a series of material ropeways leading out of the city, dogs are being transported to the little island. These images immediately draw connotations between dogs and unwantedness, as they are attributed to waste and garbage. The distinction between the ropeways and these other devices is, therefore, that while the ropeway works exactly as intended — transporting items, dropping them off — all these other vehicles malfunction, break or crash. Dog flu is seen as being spread through train compartments, Atari’s plane fails and he crashes on the island not once but twice, and the drones, cars and trucks are all destroyed by our protagonists in their fights against the humans.
Midway through the film, Chief and Atari are separated from the rest of the pack of dogs as the ropeway they ride splits in half and sends them on alternate parallel tracks. Prior to this, Chief was the only dog unwilling to aid Atari in his quest. After the ropeway breaks apart, Chief and Atari are then able to reconcile their differences. In this regard, the ropeway’s split is symbolic of Chief separating himself from a past of distrust and paranoia towards humans. It is only after he goes through this transformation that the rest of the pack reappears and their paths reunite, evocative of Chief’s acquiescence to their ultimate position of trusting the humans; their parallel lines of action and emotion splitting and converging like the lines of the ropeway (see figure 2). Their transformation climaxes in the finale of the animation which sees Atari and his love interest Tracy riding off into the sunset in a material ropeway hurtling through the city, with Chief and his love interest Nutmeg close behind. All of the characters have reached their final evolution in their emotional and intellectual journeys, and it has been delivered via the vehicular power of the ropeways.
Ropeways also serve as a tool to convey information. Prior to the groups’ reunification, a bag of garbage is dropped from above via the ropeways, inside being a newspaper that delivers vital info for the characters. Anderson, therefore, is suggesting a philosophical proposition for ropeways as the arbiter of various ideas of birth, rebirth and intellectual and emotional growth. In this sense, Ropeways become yet another set dressing for the dystopian backdrop the animation takes place; the tangle of wires spread across the sky, the landscape encased in metallic cobwebs, the large zigzagging pylons mirroring the industrial pipes and garbage that spring out from the Earth.
Ropeways exist as an extraction tool in coal mining, carrying resources dug out from the Earth and taking it somewhere else. Elizabeth Carolyn Miller, quoted by Debashree Mukherjee (2023) in the chapter ”Energy and Exhaustion in a Coal Melodrama”, suggests that “the onset of the industrial revolution, premised on extractive practices such as coal mining in nineteenth-century Britain, must also be seen as the start of the ‘long exhaustion’”, continuing that this, “marks a prescient anxiety and understanding that ‘extraction-based life is a future-depleting system’” (p. 60). Mukherjee goes on to describe exhaust as not “simply the emptying out of a substance” (p. 61), but, “the residue that accrues in the shadow of cultural techniques, often quite literally as the ‘exhaust’ or waste that is expelled from a machine during its operation. Rather than an absence, the exhaust that is discharged from extractive machineries constitutes an active, if life-denying, presence” (p. 61), This presence can be seen in trash island, with the ropeways acting as vessels of exhaust, transporting rubbish to this location separate from the city. Mukherjee argues this exhaust is a form of “slow violence”, referencing Rob Nixon on page 61.
Thinking about the durational and accretional effects of climate change, he [Rob Nixon] argues that we need to think of a ‘different kind of violence’, a slow violence that ‘occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is not viewed as violence at all’
Trash island is thus yet another peg in what makes up this dystopian future, out of sight with the ropeways aiding in this slow, destructive violence against the Earth. One need not look far to find these large masses of detritus polluting the oceans and non-Western countries in the real world. The only difference is that the animated film is able to use the symbolism of the ropeway to directly link the pollution overseas of industrialized countries, with lines of exhaust tethered from one land mass to another.
Material Ropeways are thus complex symbols in Anderson’s animated film, carrying with them various significances. At once the saviors of humanity, while also the conduit to climate catastrophe. Who knows what the future holds with this enigmatic transportation device.
Anderson, Wes, Bryan Cranston, and Koyu Rankin. Isle of Dogs. Moore Park, NSW: Distributed by Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment South Pacific, 2018.
Mukherjee, Debashree. “Energy and Exhaustion in a Coal Melodrama: Kaala Patthar (1979).” In Ecocinema Theory and Practice 2, 1st ed., 52–69. Routledge, 2023.
Harry Gay is an Australian based writer and editor for various independent publications. He has a Bachelor of Arts and Advanced Studies in Film Studies and English, and graduated with First Class Honors from the University of Sydney. He has lectured at film conferences in and around Sydney, including Dial S for Screen Studies, Camera Stylo and the Third Biennial Conference of the Screen Studies Association of Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand (SSAAANZ). He is currently undergoing research for a PhD in Australian cinematic representations of trains and railways.