The 2008 “remake” of the 1951 classic film The Day The Earth Stood Still has been playing recently on HBO, giving me a chance to rewatch it enough times to compare it in detail to the original. Here’s my conclusions. — JNS

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)

The original The Day The Earth Stood Still has long been considered a classic for good reason: it’s not just good science fiction, but it’s also one of the most intelligent political commentaries a film made in its own time.

At the height of Cold War fear that the human race had finally come up with nuclear fusion weapons so terrible that no war could be fought with them that wouldn’t destroy modern civilization, a very human extraterrestrial comes to earth from a culture that has solved the problem of super-powerful aggressors threatening its civilization. That such a solution requires godlike moral perfection and in that absence is necessarily totalitarian is the reasonable distrust that separates the conservative from the utopian; but is forgivable in science fiction.

The original movie’s Klaatu comes to a world that has not yet solved the aggressor problem and, for an entire generation, was told they were no more than a half hour at any given time from our civilization ending and most of us dying. That post-World-War-II generation — known as Baby Boomers — reacted to growing up in that fear and despair by infecting all politics with both cynicism and, paradoxically, a utopian wish that some external intelligence like Klaatu would save us. They became apocalyptic in outlook, expecting the end either through events prophesied in the Book of Revelation, or Alien Invasion, or Monsters grown in Atomic Sludge, or the Population Bomb, or a Hole in the Ozone Layer, or Supercomputers finding human beings no longer necessary, or Bio-labs releasing Plagues, or Global Cooling, or a Really Big Rock creaming Earth, or — and this is the biggest stretch — the very Carbon Dioxide gas we breathe out every few seconds killing the planet through Global Warming.

The reasons for expecting the end of the earth keep changing; but a generation taught to duck and cover never got past the childhood trauma. They kept looking for a higher power — usually not God but any celebrity promising that We Are the World — to save us from ourselves. An entire generation grew up expecting global suicide and eventually would settle for nothing less.

Michael Rennie’s original Klaatu is an ambassador with a simple message: kill each other all you like but if you come anywhere near us with your weapons we can end you in a moment. Even after he’s been shot twice by humans — the second time requiring a full Christlike resurrection from the dead — he’s willing to get back into his spaceship and leave peacefully, having done nothing destructive to the planet beyond powering down machinery for a few minutes.

Keanu Reeves’s Klaatu is, by contrast, one of the invaders from Independence Day, planning on cleansing the earth of human pestilence so they can add the planet’s valuable real estate to their own empire of civilizations — after sampling any of our locally grown livestock that might have commercial value. But he’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing — a monster with a human face. He unleashes a plague on planet earth that will kill it even if he’s killed.

Keanu Reeves’s Klaatu is the Ultimate Suicide Bomber, sent by some alien Osama bin Laden.

The New Klaatu claims to want to save the earth — but he makes Hitler look like a nice guy by comparison for only wanting to exterminate what he considers inferior human beings — not all of them. There is only one species on planet earth with a conscience. That’s the one Klaatu wants to kill off.

When Jaden Smith wishes his father was alive to kill this murderous lying creep, you can’t help but remember when Jaden’s real-life father, Will Smith, punches the lights out of one in Independence Day.

And even when at the end of the movie Osama bin Klaatu changes his mind about killing all of us, before he flies off in his spaceship he neutralizes all the energy that keeps seven billion of us alive. It’s no longer the “day” the earth stood still. It’s going to stand still permanently. With the power maintaining the human habitat shut off permanently, within a couple of years we’d be lucky if a few hundred million humans are left alive. The post-technological civilization Klaatu has reduced planet earth to is an inhuman death trap.

The new The Day The Earth Stood Still has everything a modern movie-going audience has come to expect from Hollywood. The movie is well-acted, well-directed, well-paced, and has state of the art special effects. Technically it’s as good for its time as the original was for its. I’ve spoken to enough people coming out of movie theaters after watching a lot of different films whose reaction to a movie is entirely inside baseball, as if the content of the movie is of no consequence so long as the special effects are exciting. That’s an appalling low expectation to allow ourselves when it comes to the most popular and powerful means of teaching moral lessons our world has.

But, first, to take the latest apocalyptic fad and once again declare with angelic certainty that we’re dooming ourselves – so why not let the Klingons have the planet? — is evil. The remake’s sop to Red State America that “It’s only on the brink of destruction that we change” — is a con game worthy of Bernie Madoff. The only change this new Klaatu would accept is for humans to change from people seeking individual liberty and pursuing our happiness into misanthropic Zero Population /Zero Energy Use nihilists — you know, like the wolves in sheep’s clothing now deciding which major Hollywood movies get a green light.

Note: I wrote about The Day the Earth Stood Still briefly in an earlier article here, “Things I Hate in Four Movies I Love.”

This article is Copyright © 2011 The J. Neil Schulman Living Trust. All rights reserved.

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