Thursday, December 18, 2008

Peaceful alien or Communist threat?

The classic 1951 version of The Day the Earth Stood Still may not be a great movie, but it is certainly a very interesting one--and many times better than the recently released remake starring Keanu Reeves.

Released in the midst of an anti-Communist witch-hunt in Hollywood, the film used a science-fiction story to criticize the madness of a nuclear arms race that guaranteed the destruction of humanity.

The film begins with a human-like alien named Klaatu who emerges from a UFO that has landed in Washington, D.C. In a very tense moment, he takes out a gift to hand to a human and is shot by a nervous soldier--an unsurprising outcome of knee-jerk U.S. imperialism and a Cold War hysteria that sees diabolical threats in the most mundane places.

After being treated, Klaatu refuses to talk to the U.S. leaders readily available to him in Washington and demands to address the leaders of all countries--a slap in the face to anybody who thinks the U.S. has a God-given right to rule the world.

"It's not that easy," he is told. The Russians demand the meeting take place in Moscow, and the British demand it be in London. "You have to be patient," he is told again. "I'm impatient with stupidity," he responds, denouncing all the imperial gesturing as "childish jealousies and suspicions."

In another scene, a group of humans are sitting around the dinner table suspiciously talking about the alien arrival. "If you want my opinion," says one, "he comes from right here on earth. You know what I mean," implicitly suggesting that he is a Communist--and ridiculing what must have been all-too-common dinner conversation at the time.

Even though too much of the movie is consumed by a series of much less interesting side characters, it is moments like these that give The Day the Earth Stood Still a lasting appeal. In fact, it is the depth of the McCarthyist hysteria of the period that gives this material some dramatic impact.

The Day the Earth Stood Still has what may now seem like a fairly mainstream liberal message--world leaders should work out their problems through the United Nations rather than raise the stakes with an arms race. But it needs to be remembered that the film was released just a few years after the Hollywood Ten--a group of filmmakers investigated for their support of the Communist Party--were prosecuted.

The hysteria was not over--shortly after the film was made, Sam Jaffe, an actor who portrayed a scientist entrusted by Klaatu, was blacklisted and did not work again for seven years. When everybody from actual Communists to mere pacifists was being investigated in Hollywood, it took some courage to make a movie with this message.

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This material is ripe for a remake in the current political climate and with today's far more advanced special effects. Unfortunately, the people behind the new version of The Day the Earth Stood Still have stripped the film of the political insights that made the original worth seeing in the first place.

A number of fine actors are utterly wasted--Jennifer Connelly, Kathy Bates and John Cleese, none of whom have anything exciting to do. Keanu Reaves as Klaatu is stony-faced and dull--the faceless, voiceless robot Gort in the original film is far more interesting.

And the new Gort is a computer-animated monstrosity--with no insight into what to do with this character, the film takes the exact same design and simply makes him 10 times the size of the original. Gort then becomes a 1950s robot blown up to ridiculous proportions who exists for no other reason than to appease fans of the original--who will certainly be disappointed.

Instead of demanding an end to nuclear armaments, Reaves's Klaatu has come to eliminate the human race before it has destroyed the Earth. "If the Earth dies, you die," he says, "but if you die, the Earth survives." This creepy line of dialogue is about all we get out of Klaatu's intentions. Rather than play up the real threat of climate change in an exciting way--like The Day After Tomorrow, for example--it's just a minor point to explain why Klaatu is destroying everything.

The devastation that ensues is rendered meaningless. Without an overarching theme that gives some insight into the state of our world--or a reason to care about Klaatu's mission--the new version of the film becomes just another disaster movie, and not a very good one at that. The film doesn't do anything with the threat of environmental devastation--either visually or dramatically--to make it worth watching.

The original Klaatu, on the other hand, is a messianic character who brings a message of hope--or destruction, but at least there is a choice. Klaatu's quest to explain his message and understand the human race creates many moments of suspense and even comedy. It's more than just an excuse for an alien invasion.

Whether the human race decides to accept Klaatu's demand is never resolved in the original film, which is an open-ended challenge to humanity to save itself. It may seem odd that the original Klaatu represented peaceful alien civilizations that threatened humans with annihilation if they did not also accept peace, but his threat was really a metaphor for nuclear weapons themselves. The real point of the movie is that, if humans do not give up nuclear arms, they will destroy themselves without the help of an alien civilization and their laser-wielding robots.

The disappointing resolution of the new film, on the other hand, only shows how pointless the new Klaatu's trip was in the first place. Humanity has nothing to do but wait for him to change his mind, which you would hope he could have done before traveling so far and inflicting so much damage.

If you are looking to see a clever sci-fi movie, save your $10 and rent the original--whatever its faults, it is far more entertaining and enlightening than the version currently in theaters.

This article originally appeared at

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