January 29, 2007

Revisiting the day the Earth stood still

I sat down with my son recently to watch an old sci-fi classic, The Day the Earth Stood Still. This film is drenched in the 1950's weltanschauung, but it has truly withstood the test of time. I was amazed at how relevant this movie remains to this day nearly 60 years after its release.

Our current global situation is not too far removed from the realities of the 1950s. We continue to struggle for rational discourse and peace. The revealing sciences are yet again offering a glimpse into a future filled with great humanitarian possibilities. We remain wary of apocalyptic threats and the disturbing potential for a new set of extinction risks.

And not surprisingly, our messianic cravings still linger, whether they be for extraterrestrial salvation or the onset of a benign artificial superintelligence. The Day the Earth Stood Still is a wish-fulfillment movie if there ever was one.

Historical context

The 1950s were not a great time for the United States. Nerves were on edge as there seemed to be no end to international tensions and the madness of war. The Cold War had emerged and the stakes were never higher. The world had completely lost its innocence and was now living on borrowed time; the means for apocalyptic destruction were in hand.

With all this desperation and fear in the air, Hollywood was eager to oblige the collective consciousness. Audiences flocked to theaters for one of two reasons: to escape or to confront their fears head-on. A sampling of these films included "The Greatest Show on Earth" (1952), "An American in Paris" (1951), "The War of the Worlds" (1953) and "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" (1956).

But desperate times call for desperate hopes. Hollywood was also anxious to moralize and offer some optimism -- even if it was far-fetched optimism. Religion took a heavy blow after World War II, and many lost faith in a God who was apparently nowhere to be seen and didn't seem to care. If God wouldn't intervene in human affairs, than perhaps Hollywood could; the masses started to seek a different kind of deus ex machina.

Fantasy films in particular offered some interesting possibilities. Comic superheroes like Superman, Captain America and Batman would always come to the rescue. The Bat-Signal was proven to be more reliable than prayer.

Additionally, the newfound enthusiasm for science during the 1950s sparked an interest in science fiction. Combined with growing hopes for rocket ships and fears of alien invasion, these sentiments resulted in one of the greatest science fiction movies of all time, The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) (hereafter referred as TDTESS).

Substituting fear for reason

The story is exceedingly simple, yet provocative and poignant.

In the film, an extraterrestrial named Klaatu (played by Michael Rennie) arrives in Washington D.C. with an important message for the people of Earth. He insists that all national leaders be present for his address, but given the geopolitical stresses of the time such an arrangement is not possible. Frustrated, Klaatu approaches the scientific community who he believes will listen to reason. In the end, with a number of prominent scientists present, he offers humanity an ultimatum: Earth can either decide to abandon warfare and join other advanced nations -- a peace ensured by a massive deterrent force, the robot race Gort -- or else be considered a threat and subsequently destroyed.

Quite understandably, common sentiments during this era were characterized by pessimism and collective self-loathing. The rise and fall of the Nazi regime and the onset of the Cold War painted a very grim picture of humanity and its capacity for horror. This is the world that Klaatu found himself in, and we, the viewer, see it through his eyes; it is through an outsider's observations that we gain perspective.

Klaatu's unexpected arrival causes great fear in Washington. Not thirty seconds after he steps out of his ship does he get himself shot when his gift is confused for a weapon -- a precarious start to his mission and a sign of things to come. After his recovery in the hospital, Klaatu escapes in hopes of exploring the city. Residents become paranoid and are on the verge of hysteria. "I am fearful," says Klaatu, "when I see people substituting fear for reason." Earlier, during his meeting with the president's aid, he noted, "I'm impatient with stupidity. My people have learned to live without it."

Science, not faith

Unable to meet with political leaders, Klaatu seeks a leading American scientist, Professor Barnhardt. This in itself is very telling -- a suggestion that political leaders are far too myopic and stubborn, detached from reality and mired in their petty squabbles. The world has started to look to a new kind of leadership -- a leadership of reason and intelligence. It is no co-incidence that Barnhardt is made to look like Albert Einstein.

The shift to science also reflects the turning away from religion. "It isn't faith that makes good science," says Barnhardt, "it's curiosity." Barnhardt's words remind me of our current sociocultural reality where science and religion continue to clash. The resurgence of religion around the world has been met with much criticism, most notably by such outspoken scientists as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett.

Somewhat surprisingly, the film lauds the benefits of science and technology a mere 6 years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In this sense, TDTESS can be interpreted as a film that does not buy into defeatism, instead suggesting that while science and technology may cause a lot of problems, it may also offer potential solutions.

Klaatu's technology is certainly amazing. His ship can travel 4,000 miles an hour, he has a cream that can heal gunshot wounds overnight, and incredible medical technology that seemingly brings a dead person back to life. As one medical physician noted, "He was very nice about it, but he made me feel like a third-class witch doctor."

The quest for security

In addition to these advanced technologies, Klaatu also brings with him incredible destructive force. In an awesome display of power, he shuts down all the electricity on Earth for half-an-hour. And of course, he has Gort -- the intimidating robotic presence who patiently lurks in the background.

Gort is the stick with which Klaatu can enforce his ultimatum. "There's no limit to what he could do," he says, "He could destroy the Earth." Klaatu stresses the importance of law and the need to enforce it. "There must be security for all, or no one is secure. This does not mean giving up any freedom, except the freedom to act irresponsibly."

Klaatu's plea for world security on film acts as a call for international co-operation in the real world. A number of observers of the day, Einstein included, believed that the advent of nuclear weapons necessitated the creation of more powerful global bodies and even world federalism. Today, with the threat of bioterrorism, ongoing nuclear proliferation, and the future potential for nanotech catastrophes, the call for increased global co-operation can once again be heard.

Driven by the rational desire for self-preservation, Klaatu's society has given the robots police-like powers. "In matters of aggression, we have given them absolute power over us. This power cannot be revoked," says Klaatu, "At the first signs of violence, they act automatically against the aggressor. The penalty for provoking their action is too terrible to risk." Klaatu denies that his people have achieved any kind of perfection, but instead the attainment of a system that works. "Your choice is simple," he says, "Join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration. We shall be waiting for your answer. The decision rests with you."

Interestingly, Gort's power is analogous to the nuclear bomb itself -- they are both ultimate deterrents. The implication brings to mind the so-called policy of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). To engage in nuclear war or set off the Gort robots would be one-in-the-same: a suicidal gesture. Did TDTESS suggest that the means to peace was already in hand?

The messianic urge

As Klaatu and Gort fly away in their spaceship, the viewer cannot help but feel that their stern message was akin to an admonition from God. Indeed, the theological overtones in TDTESS are undeniable. Klaatu, when hiding among humans, goes by the name Carpenter, an obvious reference to Jesus. He is the messiah who has come down from the heavens to impart his message and save the people of Earth.

In recent times this theme has been taken quite literally by a number of religious groups and cults, most notably the Raelian sect. Similarly, the craving for messianic guidance is being re-applied to a different source, namely artificial superintelligence. The rise of Singularitarianism is an overt plea for advanced intervention, the suggestion that humanity is not capable of saving itself and that it requires a higher, albeit non-divine, power.

An archetypal story

The Day the Earth Stood Still is a story for the ages. Along with its famous phrase, "Klaatu barada nikto," it has made an indelible mark in popular culture. At a deeper level it is a reflection of how societies deal with desperation, fear and hopelessness. It is an eye-opening snapshot into human nature and the different ways in which people react to stress and an uncertain future.

In this sense it is truly an archetypal story -- one that I'm sure will continue to be relevant in the years and decades to come.



Mark Plus said...

I have a suggestion for the remake: When the science fiction movie babe asks Klaatu, "You mean he (Gort) has the power of life and death," instead of repeating the original line about the biological jurisdiction of the "almighty spirit," Klaatu replies somewhat condescendingly, "Of course he does, foolish Earth woman. What do you think life is -- some kind of miracle?"

I also find it odd that the authorities didn't photograph Klaatu right away after they got him out of his space suit. But then, that major oversight allowed Klaatu to go about unrecognized in Washington, D.C.

TDTESS also stands out among Fifties sci-fi movies by having a competent female lead. Patricia Neal's character, a widowed and single mom, holds down a job, rears her son by herself, listens to Klaatu's revelation without panicking, stands up to her asshole fiance (the Judas character?) when he wanted to turn Klaatu in, and sympathizes with Klaatu's viewpoint enough to get Gort to rescue him. You have to wonder what she did with her life after her encounter with Klaatu.

mersenne_twister said...

thanks for the incredibly detailed analysis!.

all education of humans all over the world should be towards building an understanding, that things that happen are not because of external reasons (divine intervention, aliens, other people) but because of our own choices and potential.

"There must be security for all, or no one is secure." this shows the hypocrisy of the world, when the western society & power circles or daily services are disturbed, western society goes mad and fears that their "values" are under attack and acts irrationally, however the life they have designated for the 3rd world and most of the world, is killing brothers for wealth & status, there's hunger and inequality everywhere, yet they still don't get it that "There must be security and justice for all, or no one is secure."

thanks for the tip, i should hunt this movie down and watch it myself. :)

Tom said...

I think that in its day the movie was meant to be a call for an all-powerful United Nations with might above that of mere countries, sort of Orwell's 1984 as told from a perspective sympathetic to Big Brother.

George said...

Hey Mark -- thank you for bring up the Patricia Neal character. I hadn't considered that before. You're observations are quite right.

Anonymous said...

"In matters of aggression, we have given them absolute power over us. This power cannot be revoked"

Awfully Hobbsean, isn't it?

Lori said...

Nice take on the whole film. I never realized an interesting point that the film calls for an overseer, Gort the programmed robot, an authority that will intervene when violence re-emerges. The alien race needs this as well as the human race. Is part of the message that no one culture/race can be trusted to be non-violent and pacific without the threat of annihilation?