December 12, 2008

Revisiting The Day the Earth Stood Still - A SentDev Classic

This review was originally published on January 29, 2007.

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.


Anonymous said...

That was a very interesting post George. I saw TDTESS when I was a child so I didn't unerstand the symbolism and meaning behind it. I am going to watch the remake in theatres now and I will let you know what I take from it.

Again George, great post.

Anonymous said...

The Toronto Star just posted an article similar to your post on December 8th about pills and suppplements that boost brain power. You should give it a read. Here is the link.

dharmicmel said...


about six months ago I found a copy of The Day the Earth Stood Still while browsing at the library; I brought it home, and immediately watched it, as I find the film fascinating, especially for the 50s Weltanschauung, as you have pointed out; I don’t know how many times I have watched this movie over the years, but each time, I am still fascinated with it, and each time, it is thought provoking

I have also liked and watched, more than once, The War of the Worlds (1953) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956); both of these films are full of the immediate crisis of an overwhelming existential situation, almost overwhelming in scope, especially Invasion of the Body Snatchers; that two of these films were in black and white only added to my pleasure; I know there are people that are put off by black and white movies, but all I can say, is they don’t know what they are missing

personally, I don’t think the masses knew what dues ex machina meant, but that is not a major point here; that it was the case in The Day the Earth Stood Still is beyond dispute, to me

we always seem to have some new jargon to say what was said before; now we call the present state of things existential risk; but, it has always been man’s inhumanity to man, and presently, it is no less diminished than at any time before; it is doubtful that transhumanists will overcome the basic problem of man’s inhumanity to man, but I suppose we can all be hopeful; I like to say, that so far, there is no cure for humanity

while World War II certainly painted it black, it is surprising to me how many Americans came back from the war and went on, trying to get their part of the good life (if they were white); it was people of a more intellectual persuasion that worried about such things; everyone else, it would seem to me, preferred to bury their heads in the sand, and much of that is still going on today

I personally put many scientists in the same category as politicians, because I think both groups of people can be very narrow-minded, and not at all interested in what counts for the masses, as it were; I don’t put any group of people on a pedestal, as it seems to me everyone is seriously flawed; having said that, I believe that science and technology could create a wonderful state for all human beings, but how we are going to proceed from here to there, is very much wide open and subject to much diverse opinion

as a sidenote, the thing that got me about the doctors, was that they were puffing away on cancer sticks, which now appears to be very glaring in contradiction to what we know about that habit now; what was cool at one time seems almost incomprehensible later on, and therein I think is much food for thought regarding the present state of attitudes, assumptions, and expectations

one thing that I find so fascinating about movies like The Day the Earth Stood Still is that they are like windows that are opened upon the society and culture of the time; it is almost like a way-back machine to me; very interesting

it seems to me that Klaatu was far ahead of our time in terms of being logical and reasonable; I found many of the statements by Klaatu that you quoted to be quite reasonable, even sensible; but in the movie, of course, they were anything but; you can’t help but wonder how we might act today if such a thing were to occur, or some contemporary version of such; I look at politics in general, and I can see the 50s Weltanschauung all over again; also, in reference to the Messianic urge, don’t forget that for eight long years, we had a president in this country who thought he had a direct pipeline to God, and who thought he was on a mission for god, and that was disastrous; as an example, he thought the best thing we can do about teenage sex is to promote abstinance; it boggles the mind to think how much this "suggestion defies any kind of logic or reason; and that is just one example; but I digress

the relevancy of this movie is beyond question; but like everything else in this culture, it can be quickly forgotten, as we are so busy trying to out-consume each other and worship at the altar of couch potato mesmerization; but then again, people like you come along and remind us of things that we really need to know about

very thought provoking essay, and I am glad you presented it again; for some reason, this movie puts me in mind of Walter M. Miller’s excellent book, A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960); it is not the same thing, but there are interesting parallels; many years ago I wrote a lengthy essay about this book, and like the movie, it has always remained with me

I only have one more thing to add: it is my opinion that everyone who watches a remake of an excellent movie like The Day the Earth Stood Still should first watch the original; writing an essay would be optional, but also encouraged

WWW said...

Patricia Neal in a epic worthy of Krishnamurti and co. The distance to here is Devi-nately ed-ifying