Stomping Around in the Dark 3: “The Day the Earth Stood Still”

Posted: October 14, 2008 in Jeff Holland, poetics
Tags: , , , ,

The Day the Earth Stood Still is generally regarded as a “hippie” sci-fi film. And on the face of it, that’s true. But there’s a darker agenda under the surface.

The story is about an alien who shows up in the middle of Washington, D.C. and says, “I need you humans to come together and listen to my important message of universal peace,” only to have the designated government official respond, “Hoo-boy, did YOU not get the memo about how we handle things on this planet.”

As the alien Klaatu, Michael Rennie’s response is an expression of beatific condescension, a look that says, “You stupid apes just aren’t picking up what I’m laying down here, are you?”

The movie’s ironic message to the audience (starting pretty bluntly with Klaatu’s “I come in peace” being met with a bullet in his shoulder) is that the human race is so tied up with its own petty squabbles that we couldn’t get our shit together even if a being from outer space said, “I come with a message of peace from the stars.”

(A less-spoken irony: If Klaatu thought it was so important that he speak to all the people of the world, and not just one government, why’d he think it was a good idea to park RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE OF WASHINGTON, D.C.?)

This is where the movie gets its “hippie” rep: Its primary message does sound a lot like, “C’mon people now, smile on your brothers, everybody get together, try to love one another right now.”

But Klaatu’s message isn’t quite as rosy as “We got this peace-thing figured out on my planet, dudes, come on and hang with us!”

His message actaully breaks down like this:

  1. We’ve seen you stupid hairless apes barrelling towards nuclear extinction, and if you want to kill yourselves, fine, whatever.
  2. But if you aim your weapons up into the sky, my buddy Gort here will finish the job you started and take you out, permanently.
  3. So here are your options: Either play nice or get your heads kicked in.

Does Klaatu offer a way we can maybe learn to think beyond our guns? Yes and no. He does say, if we want to take him up on his offer, he’s happy to help. But he also explains why there’s such a peaceful galaxy out there: They have to be. Their civilizations came to the conclusion that the only way they could behave is if they built something to make them behave…or else.

They built machines that would force peace. What a scary paradox that is.

That’s what makes Gort a menacing presence (despite his adorable name…”Gort.” That’s a great name for a pet, isn’t it?). He’s there to show the humans just what they’ll be facing if they decide to ignore Klaatu’s offer. He’s there to back up a very neighborly threat. A threat that Klaatu’s people made for themselves.

The movie begs the question: Is peace just the absence of war? Or is it Gort staring impassively at you, a silent reminder that if you’re not a good boy every second of every day, you’ll have to answer to him? And if that’s the closest Klaatu’s people could get to a peaceful society…do we really want to sign up with him?

I recently re-watched Serenity, the feature continuation of Joss Whedon’s space-western series “Firefly.” And the main plot involved just what happens when an organized government decides they know how to best pacify their people. The results aren’t pretty.

So I contend that The Day the Earth Stood Still is, despite its “hippie” trappings, a horror movie. Because, to borrow Serenity’s phrasing, it gives us an idea of the results of “a world without sin.” And it asks us, with a hint of threat in its voice, if this is a world we want to belong to.

  1. Megan says:

    Yes I knew you would like the name of the robot. Yes those aliens do have a intense why of keeping things on the straight and narrow. So I guess that what steer it away from being a hippie film. Not exactly free love. More like a point dexter alien.

  2. threatqualitypress says:

    Feh. Hippie free love is over-rated. I think the real interesting idea is that a civilization might eventually become ego-less enough to willingly abrogate power into the hands of something other than themselves.

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