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This article is from the In-Depth Report Science at the Movies

Reel Life: The Day the Earth Stood Still

The remake of this 1951 sci-fi classic delivers a modern warning wrapped in an ancient myth



WETA / © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Klaatu is back and badder than before, with Gort the robot four times the size of the original and a new message for humans to shape up and save the environment…or else.

The remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still closely parallels Robert Wise's 1951 science fiction film classic that was a Cold War warning shrouded in a Christ allegory. In the original screenplay by Edmund H. North, an alien ambassador named Klaatu (Michael Rennie) arrives in Washington, D.C., in his saucer-shaped spaceship (à la UFO convention of the time) with an eight-foot (2.4-meter) humanoid robot named Gort (played by the 7-foot, 7-inch Lock Martin, who was working as a doorman at Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood when discovered). Trigger-happy soldiers shoot Klaatu and whisk him away to a government facility from which he subsequently escapes and disappears into the city, blending in with common Earthlings and eventually taking up residence in the home of single mom Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) under the assumed name, Mr. Carpenter, (to reinforce the allegory lest anyone missed the biblical overtones).

Klaatu fails to gain access to the United Nations, where he had hoped to deliver a message of peace and to warn the Earthlings of their impending threat to neighboring planetary civilizations now that the deadly combination of nuclear weapons and spaceflight had been achieved. But he meets with Professor Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe), an Einsteinesque figure working on an exceedingly difficult physics problem that Klaatu helps him solve (like Jesus lecturing the rabbis in the temple). Impressed but still skeptical, the doubting Thomas professor demands proof of his interlocutor's divine power, which Klaatu delivers henceforth by causing civilization to stand still for an hour through the cessation of all electrical transmissions (except those where lives would be lost). As Barnhardt scrambles to assemble the world's greatest minds for a meeting with Klaatu, military goons once again show the darker side of humanity by gunning down Klaatu in cold blood, which he, like Jesus, had prophesized to his followers. As he lay dying in the arms of Patricia Neal's Mary Magdalene figure, he reminds her to deliver a vital message to Gort that has come down to us as one of the most famous lines in sci-fi history: "Klaatu Barada Nikto." Loosely translated: "Klaatu says don't destroy Earth just yet…and come get me and bring me back to life, because these idiot humans shot me again."

Gort gets the message and goes to the government building to empty the tomb and haul the corpse back to the spaceship, where he resurrects Klaatu. The astonished Mary Magdalene exclaims, in reference to the seemingly omnipotent Gort, "You mean, he has the power of life and death?" The original screenplay called for an affirmative answer to this ultimate "how-far-can-science-go?" question, but the Breen Censorship Board (a self-policing committee of the film industry) nixed the line, insisting, "Only God can do that." In its stead, Klaatu answers, with ecumenical sensitivity: "No, that power is reservedfor  the almighty spirit." (In the Boris Karloff version of Frankenstein—Mary Shelley's classic in which scientists are punished for pushing the envelope of technology—when the monster first comes alive, Dr. Frankenstein exclaims: "Now I know what it feels like to be God." The voice track was dropped and the background music elevated. I am told that the vocal track is restored in the remastered DVD of the film.) Born again, Klaatu emerges from the ship to deliver his stern warning to the authorities in this thinly veiled defense of the recently formed U.N.:

"The universe grows smaller every day and the threat of aggression from any group anywhere can no longer be tolerated. There must be security for all or no one is secure. Now, this does not mean giving up any freedom, except the freedom to act irresponsibly. … The test of any higher authority is, of course, the police force that supports it. For our policemen we created a race of robots. Their function is to patrol the planets in spaceships like this one and preserve the peace. …

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. ... 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."

Having delivered his message of threatened destruction and potential redemption, Klaatu's Jesus ascends (via his saucer) to the heavens.

The remake adds and subtracts from the original, and nearly always does so in constructive ways. Keanu Reeves and Jennifer Connelly replay the main characters perfectly, but director Scott Derrickson and screenplay writer David Scarpa elevated Helen to an astrobiologist and made her the scientific link to Klaatu. Professor Barnhardt (John Cleese of Monty Python fame who nonetheless sells the character as serious) is working on his theory of "biological altruism" (read: evolutionary ethics), added as an element in the story to convince Klaatu that humans deserve a second chance to express our altruistic nature (reinforced by Bach playing on Barnhardt's stereo. "It's beautiful," Klaatu says in his transformation from destroyer to redeemer of worlds).



Derrickson also skillfully provides an explanation for why Klaatu would be a bipedal hominid (an unlikely product of independent evolution on another planet)—genetic engineering of placental tissue surrounding his original alien body, with embryological development sped up hundreds of times to transform him into a being recognizably human. "What were you before you were human?" Benson queries. Klaatu's response: "It would only frighten you." That is a far likelier scenario than the portrayal of aliens in most science fiction films.

Derrickson was also a stickler for scientific accuracy, employing the astronomer and astrobiologist Seth Shostak of the SETI Institute to check the dialogue (and chalkboard equations) for precision. As Derrickson explained at a panel discussion on his film at the California Institute of Technology—where he was joined by Keanu Reeves, Caltech cosmologist Sean Carroll, and Jet Propulsion Laboratory roboticist Joel Burdick—Shostak redacted some meaningless mumbo jumbo in the description of the spaceship's approach to Earth and replaced it with "The object was not following a gravitational free-fall trajectory; as such its path was recalculated." (Caltech students delighted in firing both technical and nerdy questions at the panel. Sample question for Carroll: "Are the laws of physics invariant?" Answer: "I see you've been reading my recently published technical paper in which I show that it is possible that the laws of nature could be different in different times and places in the universe." A slightly less technical question for Keanu Reeves: "Are you human?" Answer: "If you cut me do I not bleed?" Nice. My favorite part of the evening was seeing a handmade sign hoisted by a group of Caltech coeds—probably 800-on-their-math-SAT-tests all—that read "The Day I Met Keanu the Earth Stood Still".)

Some additions were unnecessary, such as Gort's name as a military acronym for Genetically Organized Robotic Technology; or heavy handed, as in overplaying the environmental destruction theme by turning the spaceship into a species-saving ark. At least the robot wasn't renamed Gore.

Klaatu is no longer Mr. Carpenter, but he fills Jesus's shoes by resurrecting a Lazarus-like state trooper from the dead. When Benson's stepson asks Klaatu to do the same for his father who died in the Iraq war, Derrickson self-censored by having Klaatu explain that "There are some things I cannot do." (Why not? Is resurrection restricted by length of time after death?) Gone, too, is the electrical blackout, but in its stead (and escalating the seriousness of Klaatu's warning), the 28-foot (8.5-meter) metallic Gort dissolves into billions of tiny nanobots that feed on man-made materials—tanks, trucks, cars, roads, sports stadiums, office buildings, and everything else that represents civilization—growing as they spread around the globe. (It's the gray goo from beyond!) Klaatu has not come to destroy Earth; he has come to save Earth…from ourselves: "If the Earth dies, you die. If you die, the Earth survives."

The Day the Earth Stood Still has stood the test of time and its remake is far more than that, and well worth seeing. Both touch on timeless mythic themes: destruction and redemption, death and resurrection, mortality and immortality, individual liberty and group unity, national sovereignty and global community, and, of course, scientists playing God and technology run amok. Myths, whether in written or visual form, serve a vital role of asking unanswerable questions and providing unquestionable answers. Most of us, most of the time, have a low tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty. We want to reduce the cognitive dissonance of not knowing by filling the gaps with answers. Traditionally, religious myths have served that role, but today—in the age of science—science fiction is our mythology.

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