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Saturday, December 27, 2003

Et Tu, Klaatu?

I find myself writing an unscheduled, unMSTied, movie review.

I hate it when beloved childhood memories crumble to dust in the harsh light of reality. Last night, while fixing dinner, I caught part of The Day the Earth Stood Still, a classic science fiction film from 1951. I have always enjoyed this film, less for its message (which, despite its reputation, has been rather trite for about forty years) than for its sleek fifties aesthetics. But while watching it yesterday I noticed a strange echo of the present.

In this film, a human-like alien (named Klaatu) lands on Earth, to immediate suspicion and distrust. He escapes his military pursuers, and takes a room at a boarding house. There, he lives among humans, especially latching on to the widowed Mrs. Benson and her young son, Billy. You can check the IMDB entry for details, but the gist of the movie is that Klaatu has come to tell Earth to clean up its act and stop being so warlike. It doesn't matter if Earthlings kill each other, he explains, but now one (unnamed) nation is beginning to place nuclear weapons on spaceships, which threatens other planets. So Klaatu has an ultimatum: get peaceful or Earth will be destroyed.

In order to give his ultimatum a little weight, he arranges a demonstration: a world-wide power failure lasting 30 minutes. Electricity, phones, telegraph, automobiles do not function, but hospitals still have power and planes in flight are unaffected. This shows that the aliens' power is irrestible.

There's no real resolution to this. Klaatu delivers his message, is shot and dies and (temporarily) resurrected, and blasts off, leaving Earth to consider his warning.

If a movie could be canonized, this one would be. It is regarded by all as a splendid example of the Message film, warning against greed and paranoia and war, urging peace and understanding. It was produced during the Cold War, so we all know it's really a damning indictment of America's belligerence and militarism toward those innocent Commies. This is the accepted verdict in science fiction circles, and if you check out the IMDB's comments, you'll see that it's nearly unanimous: "As relevant now as it was then," is a common refrain. This despite the fact that the intellectual level of its message is best expressed by young Billy, who, when told by Klaatu/Carpenter that they do not have wars where he comes from, chirps, "Gee, that's a good idea!"

(Not to mention the obvious religious overtones of the movie---Klaatu is known to humans as "Mr. Carpenter", geddit?, in addition to the whole resurrection thing.)

But look at the reason for Klaatu's visit again: He doesn't care that humans are slaughtering each other right and left, but now that they've begun to develop technology that will threaten the interstellar community, he comes to lay down the law: shape up or you'll be shipped out.

Pardon me, but wasn't that George Bush's line? In fact, wasn't that pretty much the history of Gulf War II? Except that Bush was infinitely more patient and diplomatic than Klaatu. Iraq was defeated in a war and signed a ceasefire agreement which it did not honor, prompting twelve years of futile sanctions. Before going ahead with the war, there were months of wrangling in the UN.

By contrast, Klaatu lands, makes an unwise sudden move and is shot (and given prompt medical attention) then escapes to find his way to the boarding house. He tours Washington for only a day before declaring that his patience with humanity is wearing thin.

Furthermore, it's difficult to believe that Klaatu's powerful civilization is seriously threatened by Earth's pathetic spacecraft and feeble weapons. This would be like the present-day US threatening a civilization that had just discovered steam power.

And yet many commenters think of Klaatu as mankind's "savior" while George Bush is reviled (sometimes simultaneously, as in this unusually perceptive comment). In fact, if you read through the comments, you find many people wishing for just such a savior as Klaatu; I'll bet that many of these people despise Bush for a fundamentalist nutter, although he's not the one sitting around wishing God (or Gort) would save him. Have I mentioned that the aliens don't have wars because they have surrendered their sovereignty to incorruptible, implacable robots who destroy anyone who threatens the peace? Gort is Klaatu's robot overseer.

I find myself agreeing more with this fellow, even if he is writing tongue in cheek.

Another cherished movie memory ruined by re-examination in a critical modern light, much like M*A*S*H.