“The Day the Earth Stood Still” review (1951 & 2008 versions)
It is not often that we here at Outside Context get to review a movie about an Outside Context Problem! In celebration of the event I am going to review two films with the same name! The Day the Earth Stood Still 1951 classic & the 2008 remake!
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) is a classic science fiction movie from the 1950’s. A top example of what I call, “Theremin Sci-Fi,” (A Theremin is the instrument that makes that spooky flying-saucer sound) they are usually categorised as having a high drama or what-if storyline combined with some sort of cautionary element. Consider the excellent “Forbidden Planet,” which contained a very strong message about mucking around with ultra tech, “with great power comes great responsibility”. Most “Theremin Sci-Fi,” are in some way to do with the cold war, such as “Them!” or the equally excellent, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” The cold war elements focus around the loss of individuality of the citizen as they are engulfed into a alien collective; ideal material for the capitalist versus communist dilemma. TDTESS is often taken as a primarily cold-war film and was indeed marketed that way.
In fact it is nothing of the sort. It is direct allegory of the life of Jesus.
The Jesus figure is Klaatu who has come to our planet to give us a warning about our dabbling with nuclear power. He is the perfect diplomat peace-monger, a man who has no anger, no rage and a kindly character. All the violence in his society (or the group of planets he represents) is contained within GORT; the massive 7 foot tall killer police robot he brought with him, who is entirely indestructible. GORT represents God as his power is such that, “He could destroy the Earth”.
Best not get him riled then!
Gort and Klaatu leave with a message for the faithful.
The ‘priests’ of the story are the world’s scientists who have just been waiting for something like this to happen. In the story Klaatu hides amongst the humans calling himself “Carpenter,” professes to belief in “the Great Spirit”, eventually gets shot, dies and is resurrected by GORT. He then ascends to space leaving a message behind in the hands of the scientists. As the screenwriter Edmund North said,
“It was my private little joke…I had originally hoped that the Christ comparison would be subliminal”.
Firstly, it gets some things very right indeed. The alien spaceship is mysterious. It is, in fact, not clearly a spaceship at all, rather a giant globe of light. I like that a lot. Secondly, the casting of Keanu Reeves as Klaatu is a masterstroke. His wooden delivery – he can act well, just not speak and emote – is perfect for his character as it is not used to human flesh. However, everything else is atrocious.
Primary of these is that there is an annoying American kid with problems to work out. This staple of the genre has ruined many otherwise good science fiction movies, such as War of the Worlds, or AI. Here the child’s relationship with his step-mother is used as a plot device to show “human emotion” to Klaatu and get him to save us.
Klaatu in this film is very different. He is not such a peace envoy from outer space, and he certainly is no Jesus. Rather he is more like an agent of “Special Circumstances”. His entire performance is aloof to the extreme, and yet he has apparently been given the power to decide the fate of mankind all on his own. Thinking about it, the shape and style of the ship is also very Culture-like.
A different kind of “Special”
The writers of this film sat down and went through their old film collection, ripping the themes off one by one. At first we have the “wildfire” scenario from The Andromeda Strain, which is used to collect all the smart people together to sort out a major threat to the planet. This idea is all well and good in theory, but the collective only have 76 minutes to react! How bloody smart do they think they are? What are they supposed to be doing in this time?
The next theme to be rampantly ripped is the military jumping-the-shark and being all knee-jerk about the visitor. I want to send a message to my leaders, “If a being is able to fly here from another planet in a big space-bubble and land without blowing anything up, THEN HE IS AN OUTSIDE CONTEXT PROBLEM AND FIGHTING WILL JUST DOOM US ALL!”
Don’t drill into the 27 foot tall super-robot!
Historically speaking, as the movie’s Defence Secretary claims, OCP’s have led to the destruction of the weaker civilisation. Actually, what dooms the so called weaker race is lack of communication. Take Cortez’s landing in Aztec territory. This is the classic OCP as Cortez was from Europe and had guns, etc. Right? Wrong! Cortez had 500 men with him. The Aztec’s had an army of 5,000. What doomed them was the presumption about Cortez that led to them letting him into the mainland. If they had actually talked to him straight away, they would have learned exactly what sort of threat he actually was and simply bashed his head in. By fearing him to be a god they paralysed themselves into pattern behavioural thinking. By the time he was amongst them he had a large army due to bargains struck with tribes on the way and it was too late.
OCP’s need talk first. Guns are to be considered useless. Of course, talk requires the realisation of this fact and the dropping of patterned thinking.
In other words: Fear breeds assumption and assumption is the mother of all fuckups.
When the Wildfire call really goes out, I hope that I get a knock on my door as what they really need in these occasions is a Philosopher. Someone who thinks outside the box without his brain hurting. An example of a film that realises this is Jurassic Park, where the Jeff Goldblum‘s character is exactly that, albeit with a more funky name like “Chaos Engineer” or something.
The next thing that gets ripped off is the message Klaatu has for us. His message is not one of warning, his message is one of “die”. He is not here to judge mankind, the intro to the film makes it clear that the aliens have been watching for many years. Rather he has come here to throw the switch. You see, the aliens don’t rate mankind over the other animals. I do mean other animals, as animal we are, and it is only our arrogance that calls us separate. You know, for a species to survive into space in the way Klaatu’s has, and for the “group of planets” to have formed into a single governed entity (and they must be governed – as otherwise they would have no need of GORT to police them) then they would have had to develop diplomacy just as much as they have astronavigation. For such a group to send one unarmed guy down to us who lands “nearby” the UN (why not just land right there?), but is helpless for directions and transport to the meeting, is simply stupid. The original Klaatu was a smart guy, and clearly a simple citizen of the collective. It was GORT who represented the diplomacy; the diplomacy of the iron hand in the velvet glove. Klaatu just was. In this version Klaatu can save us if he wants to, and much of the film is about swaying this judgement, but then the movie takes that away from him by GW ordering the US military to attack GORT. Pissing off super-beings, created or not, is never a good idea. GORT made no threats at all until attacked. He is just sitting there. There is absolutely no reason to attack him! NONE! Why the hell are they trying to drill into him?
The next thing that is ripped is the nanotech cloud.
Nanites end-of-the-world. It won’t be fun!
The Grey-Goo end of human civilisation scenario is well known to those who love sci-fi, but if you haven’t heard of it, it goes like this:
Ecophagy is a scenario involving molecular nanotechnology gone awry. In this situation (called the grey goo scenario) out-of-control self-replicating nanorobots consume entire ecosystems, resulting in global ecophagy. “Perhaps the earliest-recognized and best-known danger of molecular nanotechnology is the risk that self-replicating nanorobots capable of functioning autonomously in the natural environment could quickly convert that natural environment (e.g., “biomass”) into replicas of themselves (e.g., “nanomass”) on a global basis, a scenario usually referred to as the “grey goo problem” but perhaps more properly termed “global ecophagy”.”
It is a brilliant idea and ripe pickings for sci-fi. However, the fundamental point of nanites, is that you can’t see them. They don’t look like locusts. I suppose this was a veiled biblical reference, but since the rest of the film has none, I don’t think it very effective.
By far the worst part of the film is the ending. GORT is destroying humanity the hard way and in the final moments before the end Klaatu learns what it is to be human. Empathy comes a bit late, but it comes.
You know, the idea that aliens taking on human form suddenly have all the rush and blood-pumping life of human existence to deal with and that this makes them feel like us is flawed in the extreme. That feeling, that empathy with other humans, is an act of nurturing from when we were young. Its like saying, “eveyone has a mum”. Those feelings, the shared commonality of them, is to do with the fact we all love our mum’s. Any alien suddenly thrust inside a human body would not feel that nurtured reaction when he see’s someone cry and someone hug them.
Love, in other words, is nurtured not biological.
Several great films have discussed this issue such as Blade Runner, which has the Semi-Robot Nexus 6′ learn human emotion through nurturing each other over their 5 year life-span.
Who is Klaatu nurturing with?
Give us a cuddle
Judging by Keanu’s flat delivery, no one. The only person with any idea about what to do to convince Klaatu to save us is John Cleese, who strangely turns up as a mathematical scientist. He tells Jennifer Connelly exactly how to deal with Klaatu, “You must convince him with yourself” (nod is as good as a wink to a bind bat). I remember thinking he meant for her to have sex with him, which is not such a bad idea.
Actually, I suspect that if she had simply given him a blowjob then the whole film would have been over in a minute or quicker.
Then in the end, where is “The Message?” He is supposed to leave us with a message! You know, this one.
The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008) scores a 5. It is essentially rubbish.
Bio: Philosopher, filmmaker, writer and AI expert.
Occupation: Head of AI for a large corporation.
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