From the 1950s, the golden age of science fiction, alien first-contact stories have generally embodied one of two paradigms. At one end of the spectrum is the invasion or hostile-alien scenario, typified by War of the Worlds. At the other end is what might be called the alien-envoy or enlightened-alien scenario, exemplified by The Day the Earth Stood Still.
Stories of the first sort typically imagine life on earth as a happy but fragile oasis in a hostile universe of unfathomable threats and evils; in those of the second sort, earth itself may be revealed as a chaotic or primitive backwater, in need of enlightenment — or judgment. Hostile-alien stories include the Alien movies (an “invasion” of another sort), The Body Snatchers and Independence Day. Enlightened-alien stories include 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. and K‑PAX.
Viewed politically, War of the Worlds is widely described as a Cold-War paranoia fable, thus a “conservative” movie, while The Day the Earth Stood Still is often interpreted as a critique of Cold-War paranoia and a plea for global unity (specifically on behalf of the United Nations), and thus a “liberal” film. On a religious level, War of the Worlds expressly credits divine providence rather than military preparedness for human survival, while The Day the Earth Stood Still holds mankind answerable to a higher power for its barbarism and cupidity. Each of the two films explores and develops a basic existential insight: that we are a privileged people in a world of darkness, unable to sustain ourselves, dependent on a higher benevolence; that we are a lawless and wayward people, weighed in the balance of a larger moral order and found wanting.
Based on a short story by Harry Bates and directed by Robert Wise (The Sound of Music), The Day the Earth Stood Still envisions the arrival of a wise and high-minded visitor from the stars named Klaatu (Michael Rennie). With his message of peace, death-and-rebirth story arc and ascent into the heavens, Klaatu is a sci-fi type of Christ — and the movie suggests that, as with Christ, mankind is unable to accept Klaatu on his own terms, and violently rejects both the messenger and the message. (The Christological parallels are ironically weakened by a piously motivated caveat, added at the behest of devoutly Catholic Production Code head Joseph Breen, about resurrection belonging only to the “Almighty Spirit.”)
While Klaatu is rejected by the ruling authorities, he is welcomed and accepted by ordinary, decent private citizens like a widowed Department of Commerce secretary named Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) and her son Bobby (Billy Gray), with whom an incognito Klaatu — going by the Christologically freighted pseudonym “John Carpenter” — shares a boarding home. Klaatu also finds reason for hope for mankind in its best sentiments and aspirations, such as the words of the Gettysburg Address inscribed in the wall of the Lincoln Memorial, and its scientific humanism, embodied by the Einstein-like Professor Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe).
More thoughtful and restrained than most sci-fi of the period, The Day the Earth Stood Still has aged better than almost all of its peers. The seams show in a few places, notably its startling predication of universal peace on a benevolent police state, surely a solution at odds with the movie’s liberal aspirations. Yet the film’s evocative power rises above its limitations. The low-key special effects are still effective, and the eerie Bernard Herrmann score sets the mood perfectly. Decades later, it remains a thought-provoking, worthwhile parable.
Just in time to capitalize on the theatrical release of the 2008 remake, The Day the Earth Stood Still is newly available in a two-disc special edition and in Blu-ray. A welter of special features includes a pair of commentaries — a director interview with Wise conducted by “even-numbered” Star Trek movie writer Nicholas Meyer, and an analysis by a panel of film and music historians — making-of featurettes on the film and the theremin-based score, an audio reading of the original Bates short story “Farewell to the Master,” a documentary on flying saucers and more.
I don’t object in principle to Keanu–Klaatu’s message. It’s just not a very interesting or enlightening thing for an ambassador from the universe to say. It’s sort of a letdown, not unlike like having the pope show up at your house only to check the batteries in your smoke detectors. There’s nothing wrong with that. You just hope he has more on his mind.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.