Monday, April 19, 2010

Klaatu Barada Nikto: The Day(s) The Earth Stood Still

In 1940, as war raged across Europe, author Harry Bates' (1900-1981) short story "Farewell to the Master" was first published in Astounding Science Fiction Magazine.

"Farewell to the Master" depicted mankind's first real engagement with other-worldly life. In particular, a spherical or "ovoid" alien vessel materialized in Washington D.C. on September 16th of some future year, arriving in "the blink of an eye."

Aboard this highly-advanced craft, which showed "not the slightest break or crack" in its "perfect smoothness" were two "time-space travelers." One was a humanoid named Klaatu, described in prose as a "benign God" and possessing "great wisdom." Klaatu was accompanied by an imposing, green-hued robot called Gnut.

Unfortunately, these alien representatives were greeted with violence by the human race. A religious fanatic, fearing that Klaatu was "the Devil," shot him dead. This act is described by Bates as "the shame of the human race," and the remainder of the story involves photographer Cliff Sutherland's discovery that Gnut is attempting to resurrect Klaatu. The final twist: the robot Gnut is not Klaatu's servant, but rather...his master.

Considering this ending, Bates' tale concerned our human-centric assumptions; our arrogant belief that the human shape of life would -- even on other planets -- be blessed with a superiority over other forms. But clearly, on Gnut's world, robotic (or what we term artificial) life had flourished, rising above familiar biological forms like man. So "Farewell to the Master" served, perhaps, as an object lesson that mankind was not the center of the universe.

On another level, the tale might have been interpreted by some -- especially on the eve of the most destructive, technological war in all of human history up to that time -- as a warning not to permit our modern machinery to overwhelm and dominate us.

If you are interested in knowing more about "Farewell to the Master," Bates' original story is available online here, for your perusal (and free too, I might add).

Join us and Live in Peace, or Pursue Your Present Course and Face Obliteration: The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

In 1951, director Robert Wise brought to the silver screen a big-budget (for the time) adaptation of "Farewell to the Master" by Edmund H. North, titled The Day The Earth Stood Still.

Once again, the context behind the film was international warfare. At the time the film was prepared and released, the Korean War was being waged. But there had also been a dramatic shift since 1940 and "Farewell to the Master." By 1951, the atom bomb was available for use (after deployment at the end of World War II in Japan), and now, it seemed, mankind truly had the means by which to obliterate himself and even his planet

In The Day The Earth Stood Still, the humanoid Klaatu (Michael Rennie) -- now the master -- and his robot servant, re-named Gort, land in Washington D.C. in a flying saucer. They are met by the U.S. military. Klaatu is again shot and injured, this time by a twitchy American soldier. He recovers, and asks to meet with world leaders. Instead, American authorities hold him in custody, and Gort escapes.

Under the alias "Mr. Carpenter," Klaatu soon intermingles with the citizens of Earth. He befriends lovely Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) and her son, Bobby Benson (Billy Gray). He talks to a leading Earth scientist (Sam Jaffe), visits Arlington National Cemetery and the Lincoln Monument, and is ultimately sold-out by Helen's boyfriend, Tom Stephens (Hugh Marlowe). When Klaatu is shot dead by U.S. authorities, the hulking robot Gort resurrects him and permits the visitor to deliver a final, staggering message to the people of Earth. In part, it goes like this:

"The universe grows smaller every day, and the threat of aggression by any group, anywhere, can no longer be tolerated. There must be security for all, or no one is secure.

Now, this does not mean giving up any freedom, except the freedom to act irresponsibly. Your ancestors knew this when they made laws to govern themselves and hired policemen to enforce them.

We, of the other planets, have long accepted this principle. We have an organization for the mutual protection of all planets and for the complete elimination of aggression. The test of any such higher authority is, of course, the police force that supports it. For our policemen, we created a race of robots. Their function is to patrol the planets in spaceships like this one and preserve the peace. In matters of aggression, we have given them absolute power over us. This power cannot be revoked. At the first sign of violence, they act automatically against the aggressor. The penalty for provoking their action is too terrible to risk.

The result is, we live in peace, without arms or armies, secure in the knowledge that we are free from aggression and war. Free to pursue more... profitable enterprises. Now, we do not pretend to have achieved perfection, but we do have a system, and it works. I came here to give you these facts. It is no concern of ours how you run your own planet, but if you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder."

In a time of war, when the "Red Scare" (fear of Communism) was in full swing, it was downright shocking for an American studio film to suggest that America and the world, literally, disarm. Though there's still the possibility of capitalism encoded in Klaatu's speech (he mentions the pursuit of "profitable enterprises," specifically), this lecture calls for not just an end to war here on Earth, but an end to gun ownership all together. I can't imagine that message playing particularly well in the American south. In 1951 or now.

Some people have suggested that Klaatu's solution to world war in The Day The Earth Stood Still is fascist in nature (since everyone is under the thumb of robot police force...), but in some ways the fictional solution of Wise's film actually mirrors the eventual Cold War accommodation over nuclear Armageddon. The threat of mutually assured destruction served as a deterrent to their use. We lived under this fear for decades, and neither The Soviet Union nor the United States ever launched missiles against one other. We didn't have omnipotent robots watching over us, but we knew that the first sign of aggression on our part would merit an equally grievous response on the part of our enemy.

Other scholars have interpreted The Day The Earth Stood Still as as an overt Christ metaphor. A man of peace, Klaatu, descends from the Heavens and is killed by ignorant men representing conventional authority (not Rome, but America). Klaatu is then resurrected, and walks among his fellow man with a message of peace, and yes, cosmic brotherhood. Afterwards, Klaatu returns to the Heavens above, rejoining his kind.

Even Klaatu's alias on Earth -- "Mr. Carpenter" -- suggests Jesus of Nazareth's one-time occupation. And, further inclined to analyze the film's details, one even might suggest that Tom Stephens is Klaatu's "Judas," betraying the alien for the promise of riches (alien jewels, in particular). Authors Kenneth Von Gunden and Stuart H. Stock excavated this Christ metaphor in detail in their text, The Twenty All-Time Greatest Science Fiction Films (General Publishing Company, Lt., Canada, 1982), noting that screenwriter North "admitted" that the parallels "were intentional."(page 44).

Today, there's little doubt that The Day The Earth Stood Still powerful message of peace and brotherhood would be greeted by some audiences as a socialist treatise, one that impedes personal liberty, and threatens the Second Amendment. On the other hand, look where our continued violence has brought us in 2010. Six decades after The Day The Earth Stood Still, the world is still at war, and mankind is still divided. No doubt this is why the film is still revered today. Humanity seems on stuck on a dark path unless there is an intervention, divine or alien, in our future.

Your Problem is Not Technology. Your Problem is You: The Day The Earth Stood Still (2008).

If the Robert Wise Day The Earth Stood Still posited a kindly, mankind-loving Jesus-styled alien in the person hood of Michael Rennie's Klaatu, then the remake directed by Scott Derrickson in 2008 lays down God's law, Old Testament-style. This movie returns to "Farewell to the Master's" vision of the alien craft as a featureless, smooth ovoid, but sticks to the Klaatu-Gort relationship of the 1951 film.

Klaatu himself, however, has changed dramatically from his previous incarnation. Here (as played by Keanu Reeves), he is a wrathful God who adopts human form (as God often adopted human form in the Old Testament stories).

After Klaatu/God's "angel" -- a man who has toiled on Earth in human form for seventy years -- reports that mankind will never change his destructive ways, Klaatu makes plans to wipe the slate clean; to erase human sin from the surface of the Earth. "If you die, the Earth survives," he tells one human.

The first thing Klaatu does, however, is preserve all the other animal species of the planet in small spheres explicitly termed "arks" by the screenplay. This development also harks back to the Old Testament, Book of Genesis tale of Noah and the Great Flood. The Earth is to be destroyed because of "man's wickedness."

Then, Klaatu lets loose a swarm of all-devouring metal insects to destroy man's technology and even mankind himself. This severe punishment serves as the technological equivalent of the Book of Exodus's Plague of Locusts, visited upon Egypt at a time of corruption (and a belief in "false" gods). The destruction caused by these technological bugs in Derrickson's film echoes the warning from Exodus. "They will cover the face of the ground so that it cannot be seen. They will devour what little you have left after the hail, including every tree that is growing in your fields."

Finally, when Klaatu experiences a change of heart and decides to save mankind, this God-figure visits the last Plague of the Book of Exodus upon our planet: "The Plague of Darkness." Specifically, Klaatu's ship emits an electro-magnetic pulse that destroys all technology on Earth, plunging the species both metaphorically and literally into "night." In the Old Testament, the darkness lasted but three days. On Earth, our technological"night" is to be the new normal, with no end. Ever.

In Wise's atom-age film, the Jesus-like Klaatu issued Earth the verbal warning I reproduced above, but he also revealed his "miraculous" powers. For a half-hour, he interrupted all electrical power on Earth before restoring it (hence the title of the film).

By contrast, in the 2008 version, Klaatu adopts no such half-measures. He punishes us for our mistreatment of the planet and each other, thus acting as a wrathful judge, and cold, emotionless lawgiver. No warnings this time.

The message is clear: in 2008 the human race is past ultimatums and warnings from space. The only thing that will change the human race is a wiping of the slate, pushing us to "the precipice" of extinction. This is the course God in the form of Klaatu ultimately chooses for us, and his change of heart (opting not to destroy us), also fits with Old Testament theology. In the Old Testament, God could not predict would agents of free moral choices would do; and here, Klaatu is unexpectedly swayed by the humanity of Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly) and her son. He alters his trajectory, but the punishment he selects is hardly mild.

The remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still was not warmly received. In part, this is because it is a remake of a remarkable and landmark film; one that has been lauded as one of the greatest in the history of the medium. Longtime fans of the 1950s version feel nostalgia about it, and will clearly accept no substitutes. Or remakes.

Yet this is a clever, careful and knowing remake in so many ways. It cannily re-contextualizes the original film's Christ analogy as an Old Testament metaphor, down to its concepts of apocalypse (orchestrated by locusts) and Klaatu's aloof, cold-hearted demeanor.

And, in keeping with the post-911 world, this Day The Earth Stood Still also plays dramatically for keeps. It acknowledges that we have reached a "tipping point" in terms of our mistreatment of the environment and notes that things "can't be the same" if the Earth is to survive; that our current lifestyle is unsustainable.

My appreciation of the 2008 remake may not sit well with some -- especially with fans of the original film, I suppose -- but in all the right ways, this Day The Earth Stood Still speaks to us with the same urgency that Wise's film spoke to the men and women of the early atomic age. Some viewers complained of the remake that it was too personal, too intimate; that Klaatu should have -- in the tradition of the original film -- issued a speech and a warning to the world. But in keeping with the Old Testament contextualization of this story, it's clear that God has no responsibility to okay his actions with us. He moves in mysterious ways, and owes us no explanations. And as I stated before, the time for warnings and brief demonstrations is long past.

In 1940, 1951 and 2008, the story of The Day The Earth Stood Still has carried a didactic purpose. The written words of Bates alerted us to the reality that technological warfare could overwhelm us and make us slaves to the machine. The 1950s movie from the great Robert Wise obsessed about our drift towards self-annihilation. And in 2008, the classic tale was angrily, vehemently re-parsed to comment on our mistreatment of the planet.

In all versions, however there exists hope. The steadfast belief that, as Helen Benson puts it -- "we can change" before it is too late.

We should all hope she's right.


  1. Anonymous1:52 PM

    Please, Please, Please tell me that Snake was on board the ship and triggered the EMP. :)

    In all seriousness - Thank you once again for piquing curiousity towards something overlooked. This goes on the list.

  2. Once again you have convinced me. I've avoided the remake due to bad press and my own prejudice (I love the original -- Keanu, not so much). I'm going to put it at the top of my Netflix queue.

  3. Woodchuckgod and Count Zero:

    Thank you for your comments!

    Alas, there's no snake symbolism -- and Snake Plissken symbolism -- in the new Day the Earth Stood Still. The Sword of Damocles is wielded by Neo, from the Matrix. :)

    But seriously, if you think of the original DAY as a New Testament/Christ metaphor and view the remake as an Old Testament take on the same material, these movies make perfect book-ends.

    Keanu is no Michael Rennie, but the good thing is that he doesn't try to be; and the script doesn't demand that he be, either.

    Anyway, I had heard bad things about the remake too, but I rather enjoyed the film on its own terms. (It is, however, a relatively humorless film).

    The remake also preserves the grave yard scene of the original, the scientist scene (with John Cleese instead of Sam Jaffe!) and a few other moments from the 1950s version.

    I do wish the remake had provided more specificity about how, in particular, Klaatu views mankind as "destroying the planet." I would have liked to see a little evidence somewhere on screen (a montage, or something...). I know there's a case to be made, and I wish the movie had made it a little before Keanu -- our Old Testament, wrathful God -- passed judgment.


  4. Great analysis of the source material and the films that came from it [kudos for providing the link to Farewell to the Master, John--I hadn't read it in years]. I'll admit that initially I was one of those who didn't look well upon the idea of a remake of a film I've cherished since childhood. But, I did take my teen son with me to see it when it came out (and he's seen the original). He loved it. Me? Less so. However, your examination will drive me back to take it in once again with a different perspective [although, the Jaden Smith kid character I still may find annoying--but that could be his job in this ;-)] The Christ theme from the first was readily apparent to me with the original, but the old Testament wrathful god tone in the 2008 version I didn't initially get (I think I saw it more in the Frank Herbert Dune / planet ecology terms). Great look at this, John. Thanks for this.

    p.s., I originally read Farewell to the Master in hardcover decades ago, in They Came from Outer Space: 12 Classic Science Fiction Tales That Became Major Motion Pictures. It's not a bad book and includes John Campbell's Who Goes There story (which I know you're aware of given your writings on John Carpenter). Your review made me think about that book again... and that's a good thing :-). Thanks.

  5. Yeah, I wasn't too jazzed about the remake either. Well, I didn't hate it, it sorta just left me feeling "meh."

    That being said, I felt Keanu Reeves was well-cast as Klaatu. For years now, he has mastered the blank slate look of a being from another planet. Sometimes, it has worked against him (DRACULA) and other times it was ideal for the role (THE MATRIX films). One could argue that Klaatu is the role he was born to play and he certainly embodies the otherworldly quality necessary for the character.

    This leaves Jennifer Connelly to provide the humanity that the audience can identify and empathize with. I felt she was just fine in a role that required little of her to do except look concerned and worried. For an actress who is so talented I felt she was kinda wasted in this film. But it was cool to see Jon Hamm pop up in a supporting role.

  6. Anonymous3:33 PM

    Did I miss that EMP stopping technology for all time scene? Was it made clear that that was the case?

    Also, what I disliked about this movie was "who" did he give his message to? What effort did he make to address the rest of the world. And what lesson would the world learn if he only really ever spoke to a handful of people. I missed the "this message is being broadcast on all frequencies, in all languages, all over the world" scene. Lacking that, why would people in Russia or Japan or Paris care that the tri-state area suffered a clean sweep?


  7. Hey Mateo!



    The movie ends with Klaatu saying (to Helen) that he can save the world, but at a cost...that life will never be the same.

    Then he initiates the EM pulse and it takes down everything across the world -- not just locally.


  8. Anonymous2:24 AM


    That's it? I'm sorry to say I am not a fan of this film. If his decision was not yet made, his efforts to discover the truth of the situation were half-hearted at best. That makes it an arbitrary decision. The story would have been more interesting if it had focused on the Chinese man--a much more interesting character.