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The Day The Earth Still Stood

by G. Scott Huggins

Every now and then, I see things so differently from other people, I wonder if I’ve gone insane. Can I really, I wonder, be that wrong?

The Day The Earth Stood Still has got to be one of the most famous science-fiction films of all time. Klaatu and his robot, Gort, come to Earth, and Klaatu is almost instantly shot and wounded. Escaping from custody, he encounters various humans until, upon trying to return to his ship, he is shot again and mortally wounded. But Gort is able to revive him long enough to give his speech, which I will reproduce here:

“I am leaving soon and you will forgive me if I speak bluntly. The Universe grows smaller every day — and the threat of aggression by any group — anywhere — can no longer be tolerated. There must be security for all — or no one is secure… This does not mean giving up any freedom except the freedom to act irresponsibly… We… have an organization for the mutual protection of all planets — and for the complete elimination of aggression… The test of any such higher authority, of course, is the police force that supports it. For our policemen, we created a race of robots — Their function is to patrol the planets… and preserve the peace. In matters of aggression we have given them absolute power over us. At the first sign of violence they act automatically against the aggressor. And the penalty for provoking their action is too terrible to risk. The result is that we live in peace, without arms or armies, secure in the knowledge that we are free from aggression and war… We do not pretend to have achieved perfection — but we do have a system — and it works. I came here to give you the 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. We will be waiting for your answer. The decision rests with you.”

And when I finish reading this, all I can think is, Klaatu’s supposed to be the hero of this film? I mean, he’s even hailed, in many interpretations, as a Christ-figure, giving his life for the sinners of Earth. Consider what he is saying: it boils down to, “Trust and submit to us, or die.” Now the fact that the message costs Klaatu his life does lend some moral teeth to his argument, but the essentials of Klaatu’s policy is pretty much the same as then-Secretary of State John Foster Dulles’s policy of massive retaliation in the 1950s: at the first sign of an attack, the United States will reduce your nation to ashes. Does anybody remember how grateful the rest of the world was for that policy? Does anyone remember how the Soviet Union immediately stopped all acts of military aggression? Neither do I. Neither does Hungary, to take a case in point.

How is Klaatu a Christ-figure, here? I mean, I have met atheists who would claim that Christ was no better: “Believe in the name of Christ and thou shalt be saved.” Corollary: And if you don’t you’ll be damned. However, if what Christ says is true, He at least has the excuse of literally being God. Klaatu has neither deity nor perfection to offer. He “has a system.” Great. The United States had a system, too. Generally, it’s been vilified as being paternalistic, overbearing, and inconsistently enforced. Possibly better than the system the Soviets had where they conquered you if they thought it was in their best interests and called it liberation. Klaatu – who looks human enough to walk our streets undetected – has given us no reason to think any differently of his robotic supernuclear deterrent. Yet when it comes from him, it’s somehow profound.

It is curious in the extreme to me, that I do not recall having heard anyone other than myself level this criticism at the film. It reminds me of that appalling novel Childhood’s End, which I have discussed before in this publication. We humans prove ourselves capable of imagining thousands of rich worlds in our science fiction: Why is it that when we turn that imagination on our own problems, we are so quick to replace the thing we hate with an obscurely different version of it, and then imagine we would love it?

Arthur C. Clarke threads a polemic against the ridiculousness of religion throughout Childhood’s End, and in the end it turns out that the human race’s children are effectively taken up by an Overmind indistinguishable from God except for its utter lack of love for humanity. The human race is guided to this point by Its vaguely caring angels/demons. But this we are supposed to call evolution and science. Now in The Day The Earth Stood Still, the nuclear tensions of the Cold War and American nuclear hegemony (remember that this was 1951) are to be replaced by the threat of summary destruction from beyond our solar system – and we are supposed to call that peace and justice. Yet far from altering the way that problems are solved, it seems that Klaatu’s solution is not even revolutionary, and still less divine. On the day after the Earth stands still, the Earth still stands under the sword of Damocles, only now in the hands of those who need not live on the same planet as those they threaten to destroy.

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3 Comments

  1. Scott, I believe you raise some valid points. At the same time, let’s not forget that popular culture is nothing if it is not popular. Pop culture is not science, even if people wearing white lab coats are sometimes considered fashionable. Klaatu presented an audience of a certain era with a message they wanted to hear: scientism as an alternative to religion. (Or perhaps this was really about advocating for the other popular alternative to religion during that era, namely Communism.)

    Klaatu seeks support from a scientist. This lone scientist then promises to rally scientists from all nations to Klaatu’s cause. The insinuation is that Klaatu’s people are technologically advanced – they built robots! – because they used science to solve *all* their problems. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that there is nothing especially scientific about a decision-making protocol which annihilates an entire planet just to discourage bad decisions by *some* of that planet’s inhabitants. Other options might have been pursued by these technologically sophisticated aliens – why not just send some police robots who are tasked to destroy specific individuals who look like they might start a nuclear war? But thanks to the all-knowing wisdom of scientism, the audience is never asked to consider alternative solutions.

    It is never explained why every variety of human scientist would hold the same opinion about nuclear weapons, or why a Professor of Molecular Biology might have a keener understanding of how to obtain global peace than a student of International Relations. All that matters is science is always right about everything! That is why scientists can be uniquely trusted with the power to kill billions, if they consider it necessary. Back then, the audience knew that scientists were right about everything, even though there would have been no nukes if it was not for the hard work of scientists. So if scientists build genocide machines then we can trust their judgment because it’s literally impossible to imagine a scientist manufacturing a malfunctioning armageddon robot with buggy software.

    The reason audiences don’t analyse these tropes is because they don’t want to. Bad ideas do not get defeated by logic, irrespective of the flawed tenets of scientism. Bad ideas mostly get ignored. The cult of the Doomsday Clock would have been in the mind of audiences watching this film, but who was paying attention to the Doomsday Clock during the Cuban Missile Crisis? Seemingly not the scientists who set the clock, as Doomsday time during 1962 was left at a relaxed 7 minutes to midnight. During the following decades people paid even less attention to the clock, although an ever-expanding array of nations obtained nuclear weapons.

    Now the popularity of scientism is rising again, though somehow the scientific tool used to measure the imminence of Doomsday is now also capturing the likelihood of climate change and the deleterious impact of fake news on social media. Why didn’t the 1950’s scientists predict these eventualities? Why didn’t Klaatu warn us about carbon emissions? Perhaps he was hoping that runaway global warming would kill us all within a few decades, which is a trivial amount of time for people who think on a cosmological scale. Or perhaps scientism cannot admit that human beings will always know a lot less than they would like to know, no matter how effective science is.

  2. I watched this movie with my dad a lot growing up – for a bit of perspective, he was born less than two weeks after the second atomic bomb was dropped on Japan, and claimed this was one of his favorite movies when he was a kid – all the old sci-fi films of the early ’50s, so this along with Them, The Thing, the War of the Worlds, Invaders from Mars, Invasion of the Body Snatchers – so, for him there was an element of just pop culture to it, I know he thought about the themes and ideas – I think he appreciated the naive idealism in the film to an extent, but was more impressed by the idea of interplanetary civilizations that could attain that level of technology, as opposed to anything else.

    Now that said, over the years, and my career in the military, I’ve thought more and more about Klaatu’s actual speech – what he’s actually saying, and I have to admit Scott, my thoughts have gone more in your direction “wait a sec, is he really saying….?”
    As one of my colleagues said after reading this post: “it’s like the entire body of nuclear deterrence theory in one post,” to which I added “but so much easier to read than Bernard Brodie.” I might also recommend the book “Makers of Modern Strategy” edited by Peter Paret – you can get used copies pretty easily.

  3. I am sure that Hitler might have given Klaatu’s speech if he’d won the war and was being challenged by consistent attempts to get rid of his political straight jacket; the speech stems from fear and loathing of wartime destruction and the desire to save civilization. However, the film clearly demonstrates the cure of fear is often worse than the disease when it overshadows every other emotional response, and this fear usually manifests itself in a “final solution.” Simply this: violent enforcement of virtue, i.e., Do-goodism. Is America stingy? Do-good elites will force her to be generous through systematic economic globalization. Is America violent? Do-good elites will emasculate her by supporting China, Iran and Russia as counterweights. Counter-intuitively, on the other side of the ledger is the government-limiting Constitutionalism forcing the masses not to be evil, but forcing them to be free. But why are elites so afraid of freedom? Easy. Free people can invent stuff that makes elites irrelevant. Things like the car (which gave ordinary people freedom of movement), the TV (which gave ordinary people freedom to decide what’s entertainment), and rock n’ roll (which gave ordinary people freedom to wiggle their bodies without censure). What’s the upper-crust supposed to do when Joe-the-plumber doesn’t care about (or spend his money on) elite preferences?

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