Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production


“You have nowhere to go.”
The last line of George Lucas’s THX 1138

 © 1951 Twentieth Century Fox

© 1951 Twentieth Century Fox

In the 1951 movie The Day the Earth Stood Still, a single alien visitor and his powerful robot land their saucer-shaped spaceship in a park in Washington, DC. To demonstrate technological superiority they turn off all electrical and mechanical power on earth, illustrated in a montage of cities brought to a halt of stalled modes of communication and transportation. The “message” of the film is that unless humans find a way to live peacefully with one another—the film was made during the days of the Cold War and the proliferation of atomic weapons in the US and USSR—even more technologically-advanced aliens might have to step in like a parent among squabbling children and slap some sense into them.

Klaatu, the “alien,” played by Michael Rennie in an aluminum foil suit, is a rather messianic figure backed up by an eight-foot cyclopean robot that can incinerate anything with its ray-gun eye. He has been sent by a federation of our galactic neighbors to tell us to get our act together and show us what might happen if we don’t. Although Klaatu is on a peace mission, he does not hesitate to have his robot, Gort, take out a few tanks and soldiers when they get too militaristic and wound Klaatu. He also exhibits some very “human” tendencies by getting close to an inter-planetary love affair with Patricia Neal.

The film was timely, well-acted, and, given the rising “Roswellian” atmosphere and the beginning of UFOs as a cottage industry, kept from getting out of hand by director Robert Wise. It also achieved a somewhat cult status in the phrase “Klaatu barada nikto,” a message from Klaatu to robot Gort not to use his powers to level the planet when Klaatu was briefly incarcerated by his hosts. Gort instead uses his powers to rescue Klaatu. After an admonitory speech by Klaatu in the concluding scene, he and his robot fly off in their spaceship leaving no more than a patch of scorched grass behind.

The message of The Day the Earth Stood Still is a forewarning that has been sounded by cool heads and Jeremiah’s from cinemas, book pages, political podia, and pulpits since the first technology expanded humans’ control over Nature, and over themselves: beware what you make; it might re-make you. It made a big impression on me and remains one of my favorite sci-fi films.

So it is a little upsetting to see this fine film destroyed in the 2008 re-make with the same title, starring Keanu Reaves as Klaatu. Reaves should have been as the robot since that role does not require any acting ability. The original was no doubt made for less that Reaves was paid and looks even better in comparison.

The new The Day the Earth Stood Still, which I saw on a flight from San Francisco to Hong Kong, is clearly made for the video game generation. The spaceship, now a vague, spinning giant orb, lands in New York rather than Washington (stupid idea since Klaatu wants to speak to political leadership). Actually, these orbs land all over the earth. After emerging from a gooey chrysalis, Keanu-Klaatu essentially becomes a fugitive, running around New York with Jennifer Connelley, a doctor of gooey stuff and also a widowed mom for a cute Black kid with hair like Shirley Temple. Unlike the original, the purpose of the story gets completely lost in the video game fun. There are the requisite car chases, explosions, but hardly a hint of perhaps some intergalactic intercourse between Klaatu and Conelley’s Dr. Helen Benson.

Klaatu does meet a Nobel Laureate in math and helps him solve a stubborn problem, but nothing comes of that; Kathy Bates (the only real actor in the movie) is a stubborn Secretary of State, who “gets it” after the earth stands still, but the military are bent on kicking Gort’s ass—it’s the same old stupid, rigid military—and Gort, rather than using that cool death ray, unleashes a plague of metallic beetles or locusts that start eating everything in sight. Bates, by the way, plays the Secretary of State because the prez and vice-prez, like Bush and Cheney, have been evacuated to some safe place—just like 911.

Meawhile, Keanu-Klaatu, who was prescient in the beginning, becomes confused and powerless to stop the process, unless he somehow gets back to the big spinning orb. We are never sure why the destruction has to begin, apparently it is because all of the messing around with him has finally pissed of Gort. In the orginal we never get to see the awesome power of Gort, but are left to imagine what it might be. Certainly it would be something more than making your television go blank. But we need to see aqn empty Shea Stadium eaten by metal bugs. Reaves does make his way back to the orb, of course, and the devastation ceases and he and his orb and Gort go away—never having invoked “Klaatu, Barrada, Nickto,” and leaving we earthlings to our stupid ways, one of which is turning cool movies into this sort of crap.

When humans began to construct permanent settlements some 12,000 years ago they began to exercise dominion and control over their environment. By engaging in agriculture, animal husbandry, damming rivers and clearing forests, and creating technologies that made their lives more secure and efficient they became “man the engineer,” altering their environment as much as they could to meet their goals and desires. In the process they broke not only with their hunting and gathering nomadic past, but also with their traditional social forms and even their ancient deities.

Formerly metaphysically atavistic and pantheistic, humans eventually created anthropomorphic gods who would place them at the center of creation and bestow upon them permission to “multiply and subdue the earth.” Now nearly gods themselves, humans would seem to have found their place, with their intelligence and the permission to use it to make a world to their liking. All things seemed possible, life more secure, and perhaps one day in the far off techno-urban future, even eternal. Earth, air, fire and water were no longer simply elements of their existence, but through technology, factors of production. Mankind could consider the prospect of utopia itself. At the center of this utopia was the City.

Yet this very capability for control, it seems, carried with it elements of fear, anxiety, guilt, and in the minds of some, a blasphemy. Most futuristic novels and films appear to focus more upon the “dystopic” expectations of future worlds rather than on utopian notions. In part, it may be that novels or films that portray ideal and idyllic future cities offers less dramatic prospects and are less interesting than places beset by human failings. Nevertheless, such dystopic visions must have their roots in imaginings that preceded their artistic expression.

But beyond this difference lies the hypothesis that the control and sophisticated technology of modern urbanized humankind may not be without some residue of guilt and anxiety. The theme that Man has overreached his human prerogatives, and tried to become godlike appears in nearly every age and society. The biblical account of the Tower of Babel warns against Man’s arrogance at believing he can reach heaven by means of his technological prowess. Like the Greek Icarus, he seems to overreach his human prerogatives, and fly to close to the sun. These “concerns” continue to resonate in both the actual and virtual world, as technology plays a more prominent role in human affairs.

Not to get MucLuhan-esque on you, but the irony of movies like The Day the Earth Stood Still—that Earth better get its act together or some angry federation from the Milky Way is going to waste us—is the message. [Instead, you should read my series this past February in these (archived) pages, about “why we are in deep doo-doo.”] We supposedly only understand force or the threat of it. So, when we invent a creature who is to come and give us a “global warning” the warning is that he is going to kick our ass. Why don’t they just unleash a virus, or something, that makes us smart, that at least gives us some common sense. Well, we also know the answer to that one, and it too is scary—we might then become a race of Keanu-Klaatus and bore one another to death.
© 2009, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 4.19.2009)