When I was young and first saw the 1951 20th Century Fox film THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL directed by Robert Wise (the version that this posting will be focusing on, although I will acknowledge the presence of the very inferior 2008 remake with Keanu Reeves) I thought that all the humans in the film were dumb (except of course the non-judgmental and friendly mother Helen and son Bobby). When Klaatu first appears in his pleasant and non-threatening human form (actor Michael Rennie), I found myself instantly rooting for him. As the film progressed, I began to view the military force as wrong and overly excessive as they hunted him down. I completely agreed with his final speech at the end, and thought the idea of a race of master robots who keep the peace by destroying those that threatened that peace made sense. Besides…Gort just looks and is so cool!
Then I grew up.
Re-watching THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL recently at the New Beverly Cinema here in Los Angeles, I was surprised to find that my allegiance has shifted to that of the reactive and paranoid humans. I suddenly realized that if Klaatu and his people were as enlightened as they said they were, they would realize that a flying saucer landing in the middle of Washington DC would not be welcomed with open of arms. I mean, don’t they know that we hadn't had alien contact yet? Captain Picard would have known this for sure, and would have sent one of the Enterprise D/E crew members down to initiate first contact. Not Klaatu. He shows up in the midst a “primitive” society in his flying saucer with his very intimidating robot that can pretty much wipe us all out with a literal blink, assuming we’ll know he’s friendly and accept anything he has to say.
But how friendly is he truly? I still can’t figure out why he decides to pull out that gift for the President (he knows enough that there is a President, so why not the fact that he’ll be greeted by a military force?) in the park rather than saving it for when they will eventually meet later. He gets shot because it looks as though he is pulling out a weapon, and Gort appears and starts wiping out the military gear. Ok so now we’re all scared, he’s got the bad-ass robot that can melt down our primitive weapons into mulch.
Let’s also take a look at how smug and condescending Klaatu is. He looks at all the humans in the movie as though they are children, and according to him and his “advanced” society, we are just that – petulant and violent children. Is it a surprise that the only person he bonds with fully is the young boy Bobby…because Bobby isn’t jaded yet and will accept everything he says as being fantastic. Of course he also admires Professor Barnhardt, a man of science who is above the petty squabbles between nations -- meaning of course he must be more enlightened than the rest of us. But if Klaatu thought it through more clearly, scientists are just the people he should be lecturing (and not world leaders) as they are the ones that are making all the nuclear weapons and rockets possible that threaten the peace of the galaxy. The military just orders and launches them. It's the scientists that make them a reality.
So Klaatu tells us that our destructive ways are pretty much annoying the rest of the universe and that if we continue they are going to wipe us out - and that's all we get is this one warning then it's curtains. Proposing the plan that we adopt their way of using a race of “police” robots that pretty much will obliterate you if you break the law (well, violently anyway) which keeps their society in peace – that is a peace mind you ruled by fear and intimidation of the robots. There are the benefits of their more sophisticated medical treatments like bringing Klaatu back from the dead, and the fact that they have achieved interstellar travel. Seriously though…is is worth it? Think about this…how many humans would be wiped out until this plan is fully in place and accepted? It is not like we’re all just going to stop being violent all of a sudden because some aliens tell us too. Many of the nations of this world – most famously, this one (being the United States of America) – were formed through rebellious acts of people being oppressed and fighting their oppressors. In reality, the system Klaatu proposes is one of oppression, where violence is not tolerated and is met with instant death. Surely the people of the earth wouldn’t just sit by and let this system be implemented, there is sure to be some sort of revolt resulting in violence and a lot of death which in essence makes the system a lot worse than the problems we already have with a cold war that seems to be keeping all the enemies at bay.
Also we have Klaatu's basic statement telling us about how our “petty squabbles” threaten the peace in the galaxy, and once that happens well Earth just gets wiped out - no ifs, ands or buts. I would say that makes Klaatu’s message pretty much 100% a threat and not a reaching out to become friends. The only reason he comes here in the first place is to tell us – “hey, we’re watching you…clean up your act or we’ll wipe you out” no advice or solutions to help clean things up – except for the killer robot option of course.
To further prove the point there is Helen’s boyfriend Tom, the one who decides to turn in Klaatu to the military, who is pretty much your standard movie jerk. Even when the converted Helen tries to plead with him to let Klaatu continue with his message, he just ignores her. Although I can't say that I blame him at all for his reaction.
Klaatu’s argument that he must talk to all the world leaders at once is narrow minded. It’s obvious right off the bat that getting them together isn’t going to be possible (today, they could just broadcast it over satellite television) so why doesn’t he just start with the President and go from country to country spreading the word – or use his technology to take over the radio waves and broadcast it? Again you would think that had he been paying closer attention he would figure out that everyone kind of hates and distrusts each other.
The 2008 remake starring Keanu Reeves takes a greener environmental approach…basically we’re destroying the planet, and before we are able to do so we need to be wiped out. Although that movie takes the extra step of beginning the actual wipe out and Klaatu realizes we aren’t all that bad and brings a halt to it. The movie is incredibly weak and why would we listen to Keanu when Al Gore has been reminding of this for years? To get an idea of where this movie went wrong, you just need to watch the featurette on the Blu-Ray and DVD where the production team discusses the evolution of that film’s GORT, and you can see how it was doomed from the beginning.
This doesn’t mean that my appreciation for the 1951 THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL has been altered in any way shape or form. I still rank it as one of the best 1950s cold war themed science fiction films, and among the best science fiction films ever made. The original Gort has become a major symbol in pop culture, as has the saying “klaatu barada nikto”. What I am saying is that over time (and I’m sure Bobby’s opinion changed once the sheen of childhood wore off) I have realized that behind that smiling friendly face of Klaatu that I once thought had all the answers, is a not so friendly menace that inspires a deeper thinking into the essence of this classic film.
On a side note, the ultimate in irony of ironies is that during the exact moment where the Earth stood still, a 5.0 earthquake rocked Southern California. Perhaps Klaatu sending a message.