The Day the Earth Stood Still: A Prophetic
Original and a Mixed Up Remake

by Ken Sanes

The remake of the movie The Day the Earth Stood Still elicited a torrent of negative reviews when it came out. That isn’t surprising since the movie has a lifeless and sensationalized quality that seems to contradict its own message in support of ecology and living things.

These limitations are particularly disappointing because the original version of the movie is one of Hollywood’s science fiction masterpieces. The original, which came out in 1951, is everything the remake isn’t: it has an engaging story and characters, it is full of humanity, and it has an ethical vision that has rarely been matched.

The original also does something that the remake tries to do clumsily: it lets us look at the human race through the eyes of an outsider who doesn’t share our foibles and emotional vulnerabilities. Its goal -- and this makes it one of the more ambitious movies that have ever been made -- is to radically shift our perspective and point the way to a higher level of ethical awareness.

In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that the movie speaks with a prophetic voice. At the most obvious level, it warns us about the threat that humanity poses to itself with nuclear weapons. But barely below the surface, it does something even more interesting and tries to put us in touch with a universal vision of the kind that spiritual figures throughout history have tried to get us to see. It is partly successful at that, although it also ends up undermining its own message and raising some questions about whether the utopian ideas it champions are really good for people.

The movie tells the story of an alien, “Klaatu”, played by Michael Rennie, who lands in Washington D.C., while humanity looks on with fear and fascination. It seems he has come to Earth with a message: the way humanity is combining space travel and atomic energy will soon threaten the peace-loving inhabitants of other worlds. The only solution is for the Earth to abandon its warlike ways and join a peaceful federation of planets or be destroyed.

Klaatu wants to deliver his message to representatives of all the nations of the Earth, but that effort fails due to suspicions and jealousies among nations. Instead he finds himself being held prisoner by a U.S. government that seems remarkably unaware of the risk it is running by treating the alien in an adversarial fashion.

But the alien can’t be held by mere human contrivances such as a locked door. So he escapes and, since he looks human, he goes incognito in Washington D.C., to learn about humanity and the suspicious attitudes that set people against each other. While a sensationalistic media vilifies Klaatu as the monster from outer space, and panic sweeps the country, he stays quietly out of sight in a boarding house, where he befriends a single woman, Helen Benson, played by Patricia Neal, and her young son.

He also develops an alternative plan: with the help of a scientist, Professor Jacob Barnhardt, played by Sam Jaffe and modeled after Albert Einstein, he will deliver his message at his space ship to an audience of scientists and great minds from around the world. But before he can make it, he is hunted down and killed by the armed forces.

The oversized robot “Gort” that accompanied him on his trip to Earth then carries him back to their saucer-shaped space ship and uses advanced technology to temporarily bring him back to life. He then gives his speech, which is the thematic climax of the movie and the message that the movie itself has for humanity:

“The universe grows smaller every day and the threat of aggression by any group anywhere can no longer be tolerated,” Klaatu tells his audience, as he stands on the rim of his ship. He goes on to say that he represents a federation of planets that utilizes a police force of robots to stop all violence.

“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. Your choice is simple. Join us and live in peace or pursue your present course and face obliteration. We shall be waiting for your answer. The decision rests with you.”

As he speaks, we are shown the world’s intellectual leaders and great minds looking at each other, disturbed, as Klaatu describes the consequences if Earth refuses his offer. They are learning something momentous that will take the human race to a new level of development or result in its extinction.

The movie then ends on a note of wistfulness and tragedy. We have been told that there is no way to know how long the resurrected Klaatu will now live. In the final scene, the door to his flying saucer seamlessly closes with Klaatu and the robot inside, and his craft departs for outer space as we are left uncertain how much time he has left or if humanity will take his warning to heart and save itself.

The movie, which was based on a short story by Harry Bates, and directed by Robert Wise, who went on to do other well known hits, including The Sound of Music and Star Trek: The Motion Picture, is certainly one of the most brilliant science fiction creations in any genre. It knows how to ratchet up the suspense and use irony to great effect, even if there are a few plot holes large enough to fly a spaceship through. Adding to the effect, the music is eerie and unnerving, and many of the frames can function as individual works of art.

And the movie certainly knew how to exploit the tensions of the time for dramatic effect, since it was made when flying saucer “sightings” were relatively new. And the Soviet Union had only recently developed nuclear weapons.

Of course, on the surface, the political message of The Day the Earth Stood Still is perhaps a little too obvious, since it takes a set of political ideals from its time and projects them onto an interstellar arena. It doesn’t merely support the United Nations and world control of dangerous weapons; it offers a vision of interplanetary government and disarmament. In fact, according to a New York Times article, the prime mover behind the movie, producer Julian Blaustein, said that his goal was to support a strong United Nations (which had just been created in 1945). That makes the movie a brilliantly conceived political argument, as well as a work of art.

But what gives the movie its depth and resonance is the nature of the conflict it depicts, since this isn’t a conventional story about good versus evil, and it doesn’t have a conventional villain. The main antagonist for Klaatu – the government – isn’t really a villain at all since it is chasing him in a misguided effort to protect the country.

In place of good versus evil, the movie gives us a conflict between a small group of characters who are emotionally wise and intelligent, on one side, and the mass of humanity, which is depicted as driven by negative emotions and desires, including fear, aggression and blind ambition, on the other.

It is Klaatu who is at the center of the emotionally wise characters. In fact, Klaatu is downright transcendental in his peaceful manner and equanimity. He is clearly modeled after humanity’s spiritual leaders who preached nonviolence and asked humanity to ascend to a higher level of development. As others have observed, he is a Christ-like figure who descends to Earth, walks among us, dies and is resurrected, while he carries a message of peace. When he hides out among humanity he goes by the name Mr. Carpenter, an allusion to Jesus. Among others, it appears that Klaatu is also based on Mahatma Gandhi, the practitioner of militant nonviolence, who was assassinated in 1948, a few years before the movie was made. On another level, Klaatu is a fictional image of what Freud referred to as the ego ideal. He is our own idealized and perfected self as we would like to see it, reflected back to us on a black and white screen.

Throughout the movie, we are invited to see a fallen humanity through his eyes. In a number of scenes we see his wry amusement at the foibles of human beings. In other scenes, such as the speech to the world’s intellectual leaders, he describes the way humanity’s pettiness looks to him as an advanced outsider, which is the movie’s way of trying to shock humanity into seeing itself in a new light.

In an early scene, for example, Mr. Harley, secretary to the president, in explaining why it is difficult to meet with representatives of all the nations, tries to create a bond with Klaatu by talking to him as one good person to another, while distancing both of them from the evil in the world. “I’m sure you -- you -- recognize from our broadcasts the evil forces that have produced the trouble in our world….” he tells Klaatu.

But Klaatu’s response makes clear that he isn’t interested in siding with one group against another. He has a radically different perspective: “I’m not concerned, Mr. Harley, with the internal affairs of your planet,” he says. “My mission here is not to solve your petty squabbles. It concerns the existence of every last creature on Earth.”

Later, in speaking to Professor Barnhardt, Klaatu once again gives us an outsider’s perspective on our violence, in which we appear small and petty: “So long as you were limited to fighting among yourselves, with your primitive tanks and aircraft, we were unconcerned. But soon one of your nations will apply atomic energy to space ships. That will create a threat to the peace and security of other planets. That, of course, we cannot tolerate.”

In addition to Klaatu, Professor Barnhardt is another of the emotionally intelligent characters. Like Klaatu, he is separate from most of humanity, because he is an Einstein-like egghead who has himself achieved a state of equanimity. When Klaatu introduces himself as the alien, Professor Barnhardt reacts not with paranoia and violence but, after the initial shock, with curiosity and humor: “Sit down please,” he says. “There are several thousand questions I’d like to ask you.”

But Professor Barnhardt’s finest moment comes when Klaatu gives humanity a demonstration of his power, so it will understand the stakes if it ignores his message. Klaatu makes technology around the Earth come to a standstill (hence the title), except for machines that have to keep running for the sake of safety. As cars are stuck on roads and the lights are out, and humanity scrambles in fear and bewilderment, Professor Barnhardt asks his housekeeper and assistant how it makes her feel.

“Tell me, Hilda, does all this frighten you? Does it make you feel insecure?” he asks.

“Yes sir, it certainly does,” she says.

“That’s good, Hilda. I’m glad,” he replies, with more than a hint of teasing irony in his voice, as she looks at him with surprise.

At the literal level, Professor Barnhardt is saying he is happy the demonstration is working, so humanity will understand the risk of turning down Klaatu’s offer. But it is clear that Barnhardt, as a fellow outsider not taken in by humanity’s foibles, is enjoying the spectacle of humanity cut down to size. The movie invites us to join him and become one of the elect who see humanity from a larger perspective.

A third character who displays emotional maturity and insight is the single mother, Helen Benson, who helps Klaatu. She’s the implied love interest, although nothing happens between them since that might have damaged the audience’s image of Klaatu as a spiritual leader beyond human frailty. Her attitude of openness to the alien is contrasted with others in the boarding house where Klaatu is staying who, like the government, aren’t villains so much as they are small-minded people prone to irrational fears.

But there is one Judas-like character who does come close to being a villain (although he isn’t the main antagonist), because he is motivated by blind ambition. This is the man who wants to marry Helen Benson and who ignores her entreaties to protect the alien, instead telling the government where it can find him. He believes that, by doing so, he will become, as he put it, “the biggest man in the country,” and advance his career.

Of course, by depicting these weaknesses, the movie shows us why humanity would be a threat to other worlds. In effect, Klaatu comes to Earth to tell humanity it can’t be trusted with powerful technologies, and humanity’s response is to demonstrate why he is right, which is one of a number of ways the movie embodies its message in its characters and story.

Needless to say, The Day the Earth Stood Still isn’t exactly a populist movie. It offers a form of elitism in which most of humanity is reduced to playing the role of teeming masses of frightened and foolish people. To save ourselves, the movie tells us, we need to look to the few who have evolved to a higher state of wisdom and maturity. It gives us this message by inviting us to identify with Klaatu (and his supporters) and imagine ourselves as an otherworldly saint who can bring peace on Earth.

The problem, of course, is that we have learned from the bitter experience of past examples (the French Revolution and the Soviet Union come to mind) that utopian dreams can turn into violent, oppressive, nightmares. In Klaatu’s federation, robots -- machines -- have the ultimate control over violence. And if humanity refuses to go along with this system, then humanity will, Klaatu says, “face obliteration!”

So maybe humanity’s fear isn’t so mad after all. Even though this appears to be a benign federation, it looks like humanity is about to be assimilated.

And what about Klaatu’s comment to Mr. Harley, secretary to the president, when he says, “My mission here is not to solve your petty squabbles,” as well as his statement to Professor Barnhardt: “So long as you were limited to fighting among yourselves, with your primitive tanks and aircraft, we were unconcerned. But soon one of your nations will apply atomic energy to space ships. That will create a threat to the peace and security of other planets. That, of course, we cannot tolerate.” His comments suggested there was a moral equivalence between America and its enemies, an idea the movie was able to get away with because Klaatu’s observations were phrased in a general way and embedded in an almost religious fantasy. But statements like these may also reveal why Klaatu is insensitive to the difference between good and evil on Earth. After all, his federation of planets isn’t really motivated by a desire to help humanity. It is merely trying to protect itself by disarming us.

So, in some ways,  the 1951 version of The Day the Earth Stood Still deconstructs itself. It can be taken as a vision of what we can become or as a cautionary tale about believing in spiritual gurus and utopian dreams of universal disarmament and world government. Or both.

Despite these imperfections, and despite the passage of time, the original still has the capacity to enlarge us, and it remains one of Hollywood’s finest creations. Its depiction of technology as something that can destroy us (in the robot as well as nuclear weapons), and its depiction of how helpless humanity is when machines stop working, places it in a long line of worthy science fiction creations, even while it tries to fascinate its audience with the prospect of incredible alien technologies.

Unfortunately, the 2008 remake by the same name can’t aspire to the original’s moral and aesthetic impact. The remake offers a different message about saving the environment that expresses new circumstances and a contemporary sensibility. But it seems like the message has been tacked onto the story with a Post-It note, instead of emerging naturally from the characters and their actions.

Keanu Reeves plays an updated Klaatu, who is adjusting to having taken human form for his visit to Earth, where he intends to save the ecosystem by destroying the humanity that is threatening it. Instead of being in a state of equanimity, this contemporary anti-hero is awkward and lacking emotion.

But the remake does unfold with a dramatic pace that will keep many people reasonably absorbed in the story, despite its limitations. And it offers a variation on the original theme. In the original, the people who have insight and emotional wisdom help Klaatu get his message to humanity, so the Earth can be saved. In the remake, emotionally intelligent people try to convince the alien that humanity should be saved, as they are contrasted with a terrified and fleeing humanity and a government that only seems to know how to use force.

Unfortunately, the message about emotional wisdom isn’t effectively embodied in the remake, partly because the remake itself lacks emotional intelligence. It bears the imprint of some of the negative trends of the era in which it was made since, instead of a story full of humanity, it gives us emotional deadness combined with action, technology and special effects. The movie takes one element of the original, namely the idea that the aliens might decide to harm the Earth, and uses that to spin out a story seething with violence, dehumanization and despair. Its ethically ambiguous central character is a one-person (or one-alien) apocalypse, which may be exciting from a certain perspective but doesn’t give the audience much to work with beyond the adrenaline rush of simulated action. It is as if the bright light of the original had traveled from a great distance and reached the remake, so that the outline of a shape is still visible but most of the illumination has been lost.


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This excerpt provides some good background information:

The Cold War Sci-Fi Parable That Fell to Earth
New York Times
Published: October 31, 2008

…In the meantime, Klaatu makes contact with Dr. Barnhardt, the smartest man on earth, played by a wide-eyed, wild-haired Sam Jaffe as an obvious stand-in for Albert Einstein.

This was not an innocent choice. America’s most famous brain was a proponent of world government and opponent of loyalty oaths, reviled as a Communist fellow-traveler for being a co-sponsor of the Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace held at the Waldorf-Astoria in 1949. Encouraged by Klaatu, Dr. Barnhardt organizes an international peace conference similar to the Waldorf conclave — a gathering frequently invoked during the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings on Hollywood that took place while “The Day the Earth Stood Still” was shooting second-unit scenes on the Mall. (The name of Jaffe, a liberal activist in Actors Equity, came up as well; subsequently blacklisted, he would not appear in another movie until 1958.)

Obviously and unfashionably progressive, “The Day the Earth Stood Still” was the brainchild of the producer Julian Blaustein, whose first film was the 1950 brotherhood western “Broken Arrow.” As with “Broken Arrow,” which opened while “The Day the Earth Stood Still” was in pre-production (a few months into the Korean War), Blaustein had a purpose; the movie, he told the press, was an argument in favor of a “strong United Nations.” While the film’s director, Wise, was also politically liberal (years later, he described himself as a left-wing sympathizer who had not joined enough front groups to come under government scrutiny), his main contributions were stylistic. Wise had directed two low-key atmospheric chillers for the producer Val Lewton and before that served as Orson Welles’s editor. “The Day the Earth Stood Still” shows the influence of both: the movie’s relative naturalism is accentuated by adroit location work and, in some scenes, real radio reporters. The premise, of course, was Wellesian, and Wise recruited Welles’s brilliant composer Bernard Herrmann to provide a moody, theremin-enriched score.

Variety would praise the locations that gave “The Day the Earth Stood Still” “an almost documentary flavor,” but Wise was documenting something more than Washington landmarks. The movie exudes topical hysteria; paranoia is palpable, and the spectacle of the nation’s capital under martial law seems all too probable.

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Image above of Gort, the robot: By 20th Century Fox (20th Century Fox) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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