‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ and Political Control Through Force

Movie remakes can be hazardous. Few can compete with the originals. There are exceptions. The Man Who Knew Too Much, Ben Hur, Tombstone (a remake of My Darling Clementine), and Ocean’s Eleven. In other cases, both the original and the remake are good on their own: Pygmalion and My Fair Lady, Omega Man and I Am Legend, King Kong (this does not apply to the 1976 version starring Jessica Lang),

Some films can’t be remade because of the historical setting, pacing, story, and character development of the original. Many remakes are ruined by the addition of overused special effects.

The remake of the 1951 science fiction classic The Day the Earth Still is a case in point. The original production of The Day the Earth Stood Still is a loose adaptation of the short story “Farewell to the Master” written by Harry Bates that originally appeared in Astounding Science Fiction magazine in October 1940. The film diverges significantly from the original story1 and is set against the backdrop of Cold War tensions and the very real threat of nuclear annihilation by warring nations, most specifically the United States and the USSR and the possibility that earthlings will take their weapons of war to the other planets and spread their nuclear cancer to civilizations who have done away with armed conflict.Compare this with the intergalactic threat that might reach the stars in the remake. Come on, you know what it is. That’s right. Global warming. Please tell me why planetary civilizations billions of miles from Earth would be concerned about Earth’s environmental problems. P. J. Gladnick, writing a review of the remake of

Compare the 1951 film with the intergalactic threat that might reach the other planets in the remake. Come on, you know what it is. That’s right. Global warming. Please tell me why planetary civilizations billions of miles from Earth would be concerned about Earth’s environmental problems. P. J. Gladnick, writing a review of the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still for Newsbusters, expressed my sentiments: Let’s “have Gort destroy all the studios unless the producers quit making lousy movie remakes with left-wing themes.”

The 1951 film begins with the arrival of a spaceship carrying a humanoid alien who is immediately set upon by soldiers when they think he’s about to zap them with a hand-held device they mistake for a weapon. A soldier panics and shoots the helmeted alien. What happens next sets the stage for the coming conflict. A ten-foot metallic robot named Gort (Gnut in the short story) appears and emits an energy beam that melts the weapons that have surrounded the spacecraft. Only a command from the visitor stops the robot from completing the destruction. Military officials arrive on the scene and take the wounded alien (Michael Rennie) to Walter Reed Hospital where he recovers quickly, almost miraculously, from his gunshot wound.

There’s a humorous scene in the film when two physicians discuss the age of Klaatu, who looks to be about 35 years old but is actually in his 70s. They are incredulous when they learn that the average lifespan of people from his planet is around 130. Their discussion takes place as they light up cigarettes.

It’s here that we learn that the alien’s name is Klaatu and that he’s an emissary from a group of planets that fear that Earth’s nuclear proliferation might threaten their peaceful coexistence. He demands to see all the world leaders so he can deliver an ultimatum. Of course, the government official refuses, claiming that Earth politics are “complicated.”

Meeting resistance, Klaatu escapes and decides to mingle with the people of Earth by taking on the identity of an earthling. It’s at this point that some religious overtones become evident. Scriptwriter Edmund H. North gives Klaatu the Earth name “Carpenter,” a reference to Jesus who is described as “the carpenter, the son of Mary” (Mark 6:3). Very early in the film, a radar technician exclaims “Holy Christmas” when he sees the spacecraft traveling at 4000 miles per hour. Is Klaatu an incarnated galactic savior like Jesus? When Klaatu first speaks to the crowd that has surrounded his spaceship, he declares that he has “come in peace . . . with good will.” It’s what the angel said to the shepherds in announcing the birth of Jesus (Luke 2:14).

Government officials perceive Klaatu as being a possible threat to the nation (Luke 23:2), someone whose views might “upset the world” (Acts 17:6). He will be called on to perform a “sign” to demonstrate that his words are true, thus, the title of the film. Then there is the obligatory death and resurrection motif and the acknowledgment that only “the Almighty Spirit” has ultimate power over life and death.2

North acknowledged that the religious overtones were always present in the film but that he wanted them to be “subliminal.”3

While the setting for the film takes place in the United States (the spaceship lands in Washington D.C. on “The Eclipse” between the White House and the Washington Monument), the message is for the world to hear. With the help of an Einstein-like physicist, played by Sam Jaffe, Klaatu is able to assemble the leaders of the world to hear an ultimatum. Here is his warning before he and Gort return to their home planet:

This 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. 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 along accepted this principle. . . . It is of no concern of ours how you run your planet, but if you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder. Your choice is simple. Join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration.

It’s at this point that we learn how these once warring planets solved their disputes. They created a race of robots like Gort that have autonomous policing power. “Their function,” Klaatu tells the world leaders, “is to patrol the planets and preserve the peace. At the first sign of violence, they act automatically against the aggressor. And the penalty for provoking their action is too terrible to risk.” By this technological concession, they now “live in peace without arms and armies.” This speech has been described as “the finest soliloquy in sf film history.”4 But is it?

After watching The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), what do you think of the solution offered by the interplanetary alliance that has put its collective fate in the hands of a “race of robots”? If sin is the festering reason for war, as the Bible makes clear (James 4:1–2), then there is no way ultimately to solve the problem by applying an external force, mechanical or otherwise, as a remedy. Putting machines in charge was the premise of the Terminator trilogy, and we saw how well that turned out.

Detective Spooner’s comment about “robots building other robots” in I, Robot offers a similar chilling scenario. Totalitarianism by any other name is still totalitarianism, even when people vote for it (1 Sam. 8). Who’s ultimately in charge? Who gets to program the robots? “Who’s watching the watchmen?” What is the foundation of law? Who proposes the sanctions if the laws are broken? What constitutes “the preservation of peace”?

If people speak out on what they believe are social evils (e.g., abortion and homosexuality), will they be charged with disturbing the peace? In the short story on which the movie is based, we learn the robot is actually the master of Klaatu.

If you can find a copy, read Robert Sheckley’s short story Watchbird5 to see how a society with robots as policemen might go very wrong and how we might apply both story lines to contemporary politics and the desire to manage all our lives by an uncaring bureaucracy of supposed experts.

Klaatu’s solution is neither moral nor practical, and yet I would not be surprised if there were many people who might demand such a solution, if not by robots then by a specially chosen group of leaders who function as philosopher kings.

  1. For a comparison of the short story and the film, see Leroy W. Dubeck, Suzanne E. Moshier, and Judith Boss, Fantastic Voyages: Learning Science Through Science Fiction Films (Woodbury, NY: American Institute of Physics, 1994), 249-253. “Farewell to the Master” can be read here. []
  2. Bobby Maddex, “The Gospel According to E.T.,” Rutherford Magazine (October 1996), 22. []
  3. Peter Biskind, Seeing is Believing: How Hollywood Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Love the Fifties (New York: Owl Books, [1983] 2000), 152. []
  4. Jeff Rovin, A Pictorial History of Science Fiction Films. Quoted in John Brosnan, Future Tense: The Cinema of Science Fiction (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1978), 84. []
  5. Robert Sheckley, “Watchbird,” Untouched by Human Hands (London: Michael Joseph, 1955), 116–146. Watchbird was produced as a “Masters of Science Fiction” episode. []
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