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Monday, December 22, 2008

"The Day the Earth Stood Still" Movie Review

FROM TED PETERS, PROFESSOR OF SYSTEMATIC THEOLOGY AT THE PACIFIC LUTHERAN THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY AND THE GRADUATE THEOLOGICAL UNION: I recall having seen the original 1951 version of The Day the Earth Stood Still ,with Michael Rennie as Klaatu, at Clara Bryant Junior High School in Dearborn, Michigan, when I was a seventh-grader. Each day at lunch hour, we'd watch 20 minutes of this film, beginning on Monday and concluding on Friday with Klaatu's memorable exhortation to us Earthlings. The impression this film made on me was deep and profound. It has lasted a lifetime. The impression of the 2008 remake (starring Keanu Reeves as Klaatu; Jennifer Connelly as Helen Benson, an astrobiologist at Princeton University; and Jaden Smith as her stepson Jacob) will be as shallow as the water in a finger bowl. It will last until I can find a hand towel to wipe it off.

The Nuclear Arms Race and the UFO Phenomenon
Let's return for a moment to the cultural context in which the original version of The Day the Earth Stood Still appeared on silver screens. World War II had ended in 1945 with the dropping of atomic bombs on two cities in Japan. The age of nuclear terror had begun. Efforts to establish a global authority to maintain a peace secure from nuclear weapons had failed. The Cold War was heating up.
In addition, what we now know as the UFO phenomenon had begun in earnest with Kenneth Arnold's sighting of what he dubbed "flying saucers" near Mount Ranier in June 1947. This was the same month as the alleged crash landing of an alien spaceship in Roswell, New Mexico. And in 1950, we saw the first of a new genre of books—flying saucer books—with the publication of Behind the Flying Saucers by Donald Keyhoe. In this book, we see not only a report on UFO sightings, but also the fear of conspiracy, the fear that the U.S. government is engaged in a cover-up of important interplanetary information. Like two hot wires coming together, the Cold War and the UFO phenomenon were coming together, and the cultural sparks were flying. These sparks lit a fire in the secular mind, the fire of hope that we on Earth could be saved from our self-induced threat of nuclear annihilation. We could be saved by a science and a technology superior to ours, by an extraterrestrial science and technology. Aliens could save us from self-destruction!

From Evolution to Progress to Salvation

If one pays close attention to the words of Klaatu in the 2008 film, one will hear the word "evolution" frequently. In this context, "evolution" means progress, moral progress. Unfortunately, according to the movie, we humans on Earth are underevolved and therefore deserve destruction so that our planet—not us members of the human race, only the other life forms on our planet—can be saved from ecological disaster. What is worth pointing out here is that a close relationship exists between the UFO phenomenon and the theory of evolution. Whether a flying saucer report is a simple sighting of a daylight flying disc or a close encounter with an alleged alien being from an extraterrestrial world, the witness tries to explain the experience in terms of a terrestrial worldview that makes sense, and, curiously, the resulting explanation incorporates the theory of evolution combined with subtle religious symbolism.
UFO explanations go like this: Life has developed on a distant Earthlike planet and followed a path of evolution similar to our own here on Earth. However, this alien life began earlier, allegedly, and it has had more time to evolve. Inherent in such evolution is progress. This means that the alien civilization in question has progressed further than we have. It is more advanced than ours. This is demonstrated by the fact that aliens have developed the technology for space communication or even space travel that we have not yet developed. In a sense, the space visitors are our own future coming back to visit us. And if the space visitors bring their more advanced technology and perhaps even their more advanced spirituality, they can help us on Earth heal our maladies. Extraterrestrials piloting flying saucers become celestial saviors.
What we find here is a subtle amalgam of religious symbolism and modern science mixed with belief in the doctrine of evolutionary progress. Even though our word "evolution" refers technically to speciation in biology, it becomes applied to progress in both technological and moral development. UFO experiencers routinely speculate: If aliens have developed space travel technology, perhaps they have developed a higher form of morality and politics. Evolutionary advance has become moral advance.
Like a hot electrical wire, this speculation creates sparks when coming in contact with the post-World War II nuclear arms race. This was the theme of the 1951 movie. The theme of the 2008 movies adds terrestrial eco-catastrophe. The logic of the 1951 movie goes like this: If our visiting aliens themselves went through a period of developing nuclear power and successfully avoided self-destruction, perhaps they can teach us on Earth how to establish peace and avoid the threat of nuclear self-annihilation. What the space voyagers can bring to us is peace on Earth, a victory to be won through the advances of extraterrestrial science. Science, in its extraterrestrial and futuristic form, will become our savior. (For more on this point, see my book UFOs—God's Chariots? Flying Saucers in Politics, Science, and Religion.)
The logic of the 2008 version of the movie goes like this: Because we Earthlings have failed to evolve to a higher level of morality so that we take responsibility for the ecological health of our planet, we deserve judgment and condemnation from our alien observers. Because of our failure to evolve quickly enough, the 2008 extraterrestrials have decided to let humanity go extinct, actually to hasten our distinction through destruction. The aliens will become eco-Earth's saviors, not ours. The salvation of our planet will require the elimination of one mis-evolved species, humankind.

The Extraterrestrial Intelligent Life Myth and the UFO Myth
This combination of flying saucer sightings and the hope of Earth's salvation—both explained in terms of extraterrestrial evolution—I refer to as the "UFO myth." The UFO myth is incorporated into a more comprehensive myth, the "ETI myth," which is believed by many scientists, especially astrobiologists. The key doctrine is that extraterrestrial evolution is progressive, and some aliens are more highly evolved than we on Earth are. This is widely believed despite the lack of any empirical evidence.
As I have suggested, this myth arose within a specific historical context, namely, the immediate period following World War II when the world was trembling in fear over the nuclear arms race. This Cold War anxiety included fear that political leaders were too inept to deal with the magnitude of the problem. Blinded by nationalism and jingoism, people in nearly every nation feared that one or another leader would hastily drop a bomb that would result in an uncontrollable retaliatory exchange. The result would be global self-destruction.

Can Science Save Us?
In the decades of the Cold War, scientists were viewed as the only ones who could save the planet. We were proud of the genius of the scientists who invented the atomic bomb, who put an end to World War II. "Since the bomb exploded over Hiroshima, the prestige of science in the United States has mushroomed like an atomic cloud," wrote Martin Gardner in his 1952 book Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. Science represented power.
Science could also claim another virtue. The scientific community crossed national boundaries. Scientists communicated with one another regardless of national loyalties. Could a confederacy of scientists representing different nations do what political leaders could not by themselves do, namely, provide an institution for arms control? Could these broad-minded geniuses overcome their narrow-minded political leaders and provide a single planetary policy that would maintain world peace?
So, our culture posed the existential question: Could terrestrial scientists save us? No. Why? Although the world's scientists represented many nations, they still vacillated too much between nationalism and internationalism. Even if a select group of high-minded scientists could dedicate themselves to world peace, there would always be that minority of Frankensteinian mad scientists who would sell their souls to the interests of their well-paying governments. On the one hand, the scientific community seemed to hold the power to save. On the other hand, scientists were feared because they, like other mortals, could be swayed and bribed by national interests to perpetuate the spiraling competition for nuclear superiority.
This love-fear tension in the relationship between science and culture is aptly reflected in the career of atomic bomb maker, J. Robert Oppenheimer. "The physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose," Oppenheimer wrote in 1948 in Technology Review and Time magazine (cited by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin in their book American Prometheus.) Once Pandora's box had been opened and nuclear weapons knowledge began spreading, Oppenheimer sought to slam the lid down again through internationalizing atomic oversight. According to Bird and Sherwin, he proposed in The New York Times Magazine "that in the field of atomic energy there be set up a world government. That in this field there be a renunciation of sovereignty ... to protect the world against the use of atomic weapons and provide it with the benefits of atomic energy." He pressed his case in the White House and the United Nations. His efforts failed. Then President Harry Truman led America into the dizzying arms race of the Cold War. Science, despite its knowledge and power, could not save us.
In American Prometheus, Bird and Sherwin comment, "After Einstein, Oppenheimer was undoubtedly the most renowned scientist in the country—and this at a time when scientists were suddenly regarded as paragons of wisdom. His advice was eagerly sought in and out of government." Oppenehimer's advice was sought, but not taken. Citing Freeman Dyson, Bird and Sherwin aver that Oppenheimer tried to become "the savior of humanity." However, this attempt at terrestrial salvation through science failed. Could an extraterrestrial science accomplish it? Enter: the UFO myth.

The Day the Earth Stood Still in 1951
Enter the 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still. In this first of a new genre of movies, a flying saucer lands on the grassy mall near the White House in Washington, D.C. Its pilot is an extraterrestrial, Klaatu. He has come to earth to negotiate with the heads of state of every nation. This issue is serious and urgent. Unless Earth ceases and desists its development of rocket propelled atomic weapons, Klaatu's confederacy will have to eliminate us before we can become a threat to them.
Klaatu fails to convince our political leaders. In fact, myopic political leaders will not even give him a hearing. Only scientists take the celestial diplomat seriously. Klaatu explains to an aging physicist, Professor Barnhart, that the aliens fear further development on Earth of what is now only a "rudimentary" form of atomic weaponry. Up until this point, the interplanetary confederation had not concerned itself with wars on Earth because Earth's inhabitants had not yet evolved to the point of being able to affect the extraterrestrials. Killing one another on Earth with primitive guns and tanks would elicit no extraterrestrial notice. But now that atomic weapons could be tied to rockets and shot into outer space, human violence could spill into the extraterrestrial domain. Klaatu's mission is to warn Earthlings of the dire consequences. And only Earth's scientists, not its politicians, could understand this warning and take the appropriate preventative action.
The final exhortation is the climax of this film. In the concluding scene, on the site of the flying saucer, the space visitor, Klaatu, makes a speech. "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. Now this does not mean giving up any freedom, except the freedom to act irresponsibly. Your ancestors knew this when they made laws to govern themselves and hired policemen to enforce them. We of the other planets have long accepted this principle We have an organization for the mutual protection of all planets and for the complete elimination of aggression. The result is we live in peace, without arms or armies, secure in the knowledge that we are free from aggression and war, free to pursue more profitable enterprises." Note how this extraterrestrial confederacy has evolved beyond where we have. They have progressed to a stage in evolution where war is no more. Peace prevails. The extraterrestrials bring peace as an option for planet Earth; we terrestrials can choose either peace or obliteration. What the extraterrestrials bring is scientific advance combined with moral advance. This is the foundation of the UFO myth.
I am not alone among scholars who try to piece together cultural anxiety over science and technology with the development of the ETI myth and its partner, the UFO myth. In her essay "From Rumor to Postmodern Myth" in the Encyclopedic Sourcebook of UFO Religions, Diana Tumminia describes the UFO myth as a postmodern phenomenon: "Postmodern myths, such as flying saucers, extraterrestrial deities, and alien abductions, express pluralistic collage-like symbolism of relatively recent origin. With the dawning of the rational technological age, social scientists expected secularization and science to wipe out superstition and magical religions. This has not happened. Instead, a magical enchanted worldview subverted the scientific paradigm into an animistic account of space being that was readily available for our mass consumption. That condition now pervades in our popular culture." Note that in her description, Tumminia suggests that the UFO myth subverts the scientific paradigm by reintroducing magic. This is debatable; yet, I do not want to debate this issue here. Rather, I would like to point out that when we look at the ETI myth as believed by SETI scientists, we see no obvious magic. We see only science in a very speculative form. It is not the return of magic that defines the ETI myth or even its UFO variant; rather, it is the belief that salvation comes to Earth from the heavens, from outer space.
What is reflected in the 1951 version of the film is the UFO myth. The UFO myth begins with the assumption that science is savior. But because earthly science has "known sin" by letting loose the nuclear arms race and putting the entire planet at risk, only a terrestrial science augmented by an extraterrestrial science can accomplish salvation. Salvation will come in the form of world peace. Extraterrestrials are able to do for us what we almost—but not quite—can do for ourselves, namely, establish security through a system of global arms control. Perhaps the more highly evolved UFOnauts can save us from destroying ourselves.

The Day the Earth Stood Still in 2008
Much of the punch of the original film is lost in the 2008 variant. The pitting of politics against science—where politics emphasizes nationalism and science emphasizes internationalism—is so muted, it passes by without the viewer's notice. No longer is the threat of nuclear war the source of our anxiety; it is now eco-catastrophe. The health of our planet is a noble cause, to be sure, but the new film disregards with abandon the concern for peace so prominent in the earlier one. The 2008 version exploits guns firing and bombs exploding and military macho, as if the message of the first version had not been heard. The 2008 version looks like an IMAX video game without viewer controls.
Even with these changes, the 2008 film could have been rescued had it maintained the logic of the first version. In both cases, we find humanity locked into near hopeless patterns of self-destruction—what theologians would call "original sin"—and both versions leave the human race with one more Pelagian chance to make the right decisions and to choose a healing future. Yet, the 2008 version leaves us without the equivalent of a church—that is, without a prophetic fraternity of scientists within terrestrial society to carry on the mission of advocating ecological health, let alone global peace. In 1951, the worldwide fraternity of scientists was ordained with this mission. In 2008, no one was so commissioned. In sum, we have less hope in 2008 than we did before. Poor Earth!
Klaatu berata nicto.


jmag700 said...

It must be obvious to those who really want to see - that we can't fix problems or answer questions that the world governments as a whole - don't want fixed or answered!! Unfortunately, no extraterrestrials will jump in to help because of that expression - "Freewill"