Monday, March 9, 2015

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
from my VHS collection

Okay, don't get me wrong, I still like The Day the Earth Stood Still as a movie. It's ambitious, it's better written and acted than most alien-invader movies of the period, it has that awesome Bernard Herrmann score, and in the grand tradition of classic science fiction, it attempts to say something important about the world we live in. 

That said, I think I have a serious problem with it, and the problem lies with Klaatu's departing speech near the end of the movie. Listen to it first, then come back here.

Throughout the movie, Klaatu drops hints here and there about what life on his world is like, but here we get a much clearer indication. He speaks of a consortium of united alien cultures, not unlike Star Trek's Federation, and how robots like Gort keep the peace so that the alien societies are "free to pursue more profitable enterprises." Most importantly, he makes it out like this is all some kind of utopian ideal, a better way of life than what we lowly humans have here on Earth, one we can be a part of if we clean up our act and stop trying to blow each other to smithereens - and he makes it unequivocally clear that if we don't change out ways, he'll be back to wipe us all out.

I totally get the ultimatum part. Klaatu's people see us as those rowdy punks from across the tracks who are starting to hang out in their part of town, knocking over mailboxes, trampling over their lawns, harassing their daughters at the malt shop, and they wanna put a stop to it so that their neighborhood can go back to the way it was. That makes sense. What I wanna address is this alternative Klaatu offers us.

The robots, for instance. Klaatu says they were created to keep the peace and he likens them to police officers, but he says that they have "absolute power" and that "this power cannot be revoked" (although this movie's most famous line would seem to imply that they can be controlled to some extent). Am I the only one who finds that terrifying? In order for that to work, the robots would need to understand the concept of morality - what is considered "right" and "wrong" in a democratic society. Do your leaders understand the concept of morality? Do your police understand it? As a New Yorker, particularly a black New Yorker, well, let's just say that over the years, I've had many occasions to wonder that myself.

But Klaatu says that his people have learned to live without stupidity! So let's say that they are capable of teaching morality to artificial lifeforms. He also says that "at the first sign of violence, they act automatically against the aggressor. The penalty for provoking their action is too terrible to risk." Now, I think when we first heard him say that, we automatically assumed he meant things like rape or murder or kicking puppies or stuff like that, right? But what if he also meant things like swatting flies? Don't laugh! It's violence against another life form! 

Does Gort understand context? If I were with my buddies in a public place and we were horsing around, y'know, playfully punching or shoving each other or putting each other into headlocks or whatever - macho guy stuff - would Gort interpret that as violence on the same level as stabbing someone with a knife with intent to harm, and would it be worth suffering a penalty "too terrible to risk"? But maybe I'm blowing things out of proportion. This is an extreme situation, after all. It's not like anything comparable could ever happen in real life.

Are you beginning to understand what I'm getting at here? To live under the constant surveillance of a COMPLETELY AUTONOMOUS police force that acts as judge, jury and maybe (probably) executioner, punishing any and all acts of violence... would you feel comfortable living in such a society? I hesitate to apply the word "fascism" because all we know about Klaatu's people is the little he tells us in the movie, and he's not exactly neutral. We don't see his world firsthand. One has to wonder, though...

What about Klaatu and his pals, the ones who "pursue more profitable enterprises"? Now I'm really speculating here, but something about that line makes my spider-sense tingle. We all agree that war, to say the least, is bad, and no one wants it. If it came down to defending one's home and family from an external threat, though, humans have been more than willing to take up arms to do so. If the robots failed in some way, would Klaatu's people - a society that, by Klaatu's own admission, knows no violence - be able or willing to do the same, or would they be too indolent or passive to even lift a finger in their defense? War is something to be avoided, yes, but when all other options have failed, freedom is worth fighting for, and I wonder whether Klaatu's people fully understand that. Again, though, we haven't seen their society, so we can't say for sure.

None of this occurred to me until recently. I was at the IMDB page for Day and looked at Klaatu's speech and that's when all of this jumped out at me. I may be completely off base, and please tell me if I am - this is a beloved sci-fi classic known and loved by generations of fans, after all - but I honestly think that this movie looks slightly different after living through eight years of George W. Bush and the War on Terror, especially when I hear Klaatu say things like "the threat of aggression by any group, anywhere, can no longer be tolerated. There must be security for all, or no one is secure."

Either way, I have to question at the very least, the concept of giving any one governing body absolute and irrevocable power in the name of security and holding it up as an ideal to aspire to, and this movie kinda does that. I hate to admit it, because this is still an entertaining movie, but it should be said.


  1. I agree with you. There is a subtle tyranny in what he's suggesting. In general, I dislike this kind of speech at the end of a film (and there are several similar ones especially in this same era). It smacks of the old Animaniacs rhyme: "Wheel of Morality, turn, turn, turn...tell us the lesson that we should learn." However, like you, I really like this movie and sci-fi from this time in general.

  2. That's true; coming at the end as it does, it's as if the movie doesn't trust you enough to get the message, which isn't exactly subtle to begin with.

  3. I adore the movie ( basically, anything by Robert Wise is tops with me ), but I agree that the concepts espoused do leave one with a tiny little knot in the stomach that does not easily go away. However, for all my outward "little Mary Sunshine" attitude ( basically a ruse to drive my husband nuts ), I am at heart a cynic, especially when it comes to our overlords. So, I advise you to keep these thoughts to yourself lest we be carted off by those with actual power.

  4. Ah, I've written more controversial stuff than this. Wasn't it just a few weeks ago where I admitted to not liking Steamboat Bill Jr.?

    1. Shh. I thought that was covered up rather well. Be on the lookout for #TeamBuster guerrillas.

  5. Hmmm...

    ((barricades front door just in case))


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