More than half a century separates the science fiction classic The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) from its remake in 2008. More than half a decade separates this text from today.
The following text is my slightly belated entry in last week’s Discover Challenge. The challenge was to produce a digital “transcript” of something from a physical source. So I dug up an old essay that I wrote years ago in an undergrad class, on actual paper (if you can believe it!). Needless to say, as a text drafted towards the beginning of my university course and under time constraints, it’s nothing I am particularly fond or proud of today: It’s full of language mistakes and stylistic slips, and the argument is superficial and very black-and-white. Yet, it fits into the general idea of what pheuilleton is about, and besides, it’s rather fascinating to see one’s own thought, language and style develop. The text deals with the science fiction classic The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and its 2008 remake, which I contrasted with each other. The two films depict an alien visitation to earth and its ramifications, but both interpret the possibility of such an event in quite a different manner.
“[S]cience fiction introduces visions of alternative resolutions to fundamental crises” (1, p. 15). Taking this statement by Juan Bruce-Novoa as a background, it is my intention in this essay to compare the two versions of The Day the Earth Stood Still—the original, produced in 1951 and directed by Robert Wise, and its remake from the year 2008 by director Scott Derrickson. I will try to show that the original is a highly ambitious movie with strong political implications, whereas the remake, in comparison, turns out to be a mere run-of-the-mill Hollywood action movie.
Unlike most of the movies that deal with alien visitations, Day (1951) does not focus on an alien invasion, nor is its primary aim to establish a connection to widespread fears of invasion within the audience. Its two most important messages are rather a harsh critique of the “preemptive, almost fascist brand of militarism” (2, p. 142) of its time, as well as its positive answer to the world’s problems, namely the construction of a “multiracial, multicultural global family” (1, p. 22).
Especially its critique of the militaristic attitude of the United States during the 1950s, which needs to be viewed against the background of the Cold War on a large scale, and the Korean War (1950-1953) in particular, is expressed from the very outset of the film: The instant the UFO shows up above Washington, a huge military apparatus is mobilized, including heavily armed infantry men as well as a number of tanks, and the landing site is immediately surrounded and isolated. When Klaatu, the alien visitor, emerges from the spaceship, he shows absolutely no signs of aggressive behavior, on the contrary: “We have come to visit you in peace, and with good will”, he greets the earthlings and thus shows his benevolence. The following escalation consequently is not due to his behavior, but to one of the U.S. soldiers opening fire.
When Klaatu falls to the ground, injured, Gort – a robot with superhuman powers – exits the ship and starts attacking the earthlings, liquidating their weapons. It is worth noting that Gort in this scene, as in most others, is always shown from below, emphasizing the aliens’ technological superiority over the humans.
It is, however, the aliens’ moral superiority rather than their advanced technology that is being focused on during the rest of the movie, preparing the ground for the film’s pacifist and mulitcultural message. Especially the character of Klaatu demonstrates this superiority of attitudes in an almost obvious manner: Not only are his judgments of the humans’ problems and their ways sharp and devastating – he calls them “petty troubles”, “childish” and sees a “strange and unreasonable attitude” in human nature – but also does he appear to be the personified contrast to humanity’s vices: He has extremely good manners, an “admirable rationality” (1, p. 18) and intellect, and actor Michael Rennie plays him with the sort of “upper class foreign air” that seems prototypical for members of “esteemed, elite, yet different cultures” (1, p. 18). Moreover, he quickly adapts into the humans’ community and even befriends a widow and her young son Bobby. When asked about his home culture, he explains that they do not know wars, and that atomic power is only used for civil purposes—an apparent link to the atomic arms race of the Cold War. All in all, Klaatu in the original movie is a protagonist the audience easily identifies with and respects.
The message that was thus prepared during the longest part of the film is then driven home in the final scene, in which the greatest scientists in the world gather only to hear Klaatu deliver a speech, a speech about the necessity to co-operate and co-exist in peace, a speech that gives the answer to the world’s problems: unity. As Booker points out, the “recently formed United Nations loom in the background as the ultimate hero of the piece” (3, p. 28).
The role of Klaatu is constructed rather differently in the 2008 remake of the film: Here, Klaatu is not humanoid from the beginning (he has to “steal” a human body), nor is he the focalizer of the story, which makes it hard for the viewer to identify with him. Moreover, Klaatu is openly violent against humans and quickly decides the radical extermination of the human race—a threat the original Klaatu did not even “want to resort to”. As a whole, Klaatu is depicted in a darker way, which is especially visible during a scene in the woods, where there is a long shot of Klaatu’s dark figure, bearing only his shape surrounded by fog and what appears to be dead trees. As actor Keanu Reeves puts it, “his” Klaatu is a lot more “sinister-ish” (4) than the original one. Definitely, Klaatu in the 2008 version is a lot less likeable than Rennie’s embodiment of him in 1951, constructing a more negative, invasion-like image, which may, according to Bruce-Novoa, be interpreted as a sign of fear of immigration.
Day (2008) nevertheless tries to utter a bit of a message, namely a critique of environmental damage, which, however, is not embedded into the plot (as it was in the original), but only once or twice stated explicitly, leaving it superficial and shallow.
The remake’s biggest problem, however, is its repeated use of religious clichés, which goes even so far as to present religion – Christian religion that is – as the only plausible answer to the problem addressed in the film: After the film quotes Biblical passages and issues such as Noah’s Ark and the flood, as well as the plague of locusts, the only saviour it offers in the end is the Messiah-like self-sacrifice of Klaatu, who gives his human body in order to save the world. Since even “Reeves [himself] acknowledged that one might also read Biblical subtext into his version of Klaatu” (5), it does not seem exaggerated to say that in 2008, Klaatu is no longer a messenger of universal values, peace and unity, but rather an amped-up version of the Biblical Jesus, darkened in character for entertainment purposes. In this context, it seems more like a footnote to add that the producers of the movie even admitted to have the connection Klaatu—Gort—the ship (an ominously glowing sphere) constructed in analogy to the concept of Trinity (cf. 4).
To conclude, it seems appropriate to point out that The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) is a prime example for a classic science fiction movie offering a solution “for fundamental crises” and thus having great historical relevance, especially in the context of the Cold War, whereas its remake fails at the half-hearted attempt to shift the plot’s political context and thus rids it of any real relevance.
(1) Bruce-Novoa, Juan: “Paradigms of Attitudes Toward Immigration: Science Fiction Films as Allegories in the Mid-Century”. Davis (ed.): Aesthetic Practices and Politics in Media, Music, and Art. New York: Routledge, 2011.
(2) Pardon, Joshua: “Revisiting a Science Fiction Classic: Reinterpreting The Day the Earth Stood Still for Contemporary Film Audiences”. Journal of Popular Film & Television 36.3, Fall 2008.
(3) Booker, M. Keith: Alternate Americas. Science Fiction Film and American Culture. Westport: Praeger, 2006.
The Day the Earth Stood Still (US 1951). Directed by Robert Wise. Written by Edmund H. North. Cinematography: Leo Tover. Starring Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal and Hugh Marlowe. 91 min.
The Day the Earth Stood Still (US 2008). Directed by Scott Derrickson. Written by David Scarpa. Cinematography: David Tattersall. Starring Keanu Reeves, Jennifer Connelly and Kathy Bates. 103 min.