Viewing the original version of The Day the Earth Stood Still 57 years on, it's easy to dismiss it as one of many 50s SF B-movies, but to do so would show a terrible lack of insight. The film was definitely an A-lister, meant for an adult audience. Produced at the height of the McCarthy era, the film takes on the cold war and the red scare, suggesting that mankind is so far gone that nothing short of intelligent life from another world (if not divine intervention) can stop our rapacious need to destroy. Contrary to popular belief, Klaatu never says that he intends to save mankind from itself. Rather, he actually says that he is uninterested in earth's 'petty squabbles' and it is only because man's recent nuclear capabilities have made it a threat to other worlds that his people have decided to step in. Considering that the world had just witnessed the Third Reich, the Holocaust, and the unleashing of the atomic bomb, one wonders what Klaatu would class as a 'serious fight'. The people of earth are given two choices: either submit to being policed by Gort and his cohorts (who are entirely unstoppable and programmed to respond to any sign of violence with deadly force), or face total annihilation at the hands of Klaatu's people. Having stopped all the machines on earth for half an hour to prove his power, Klaatu and Gort then fly away, leaving mankind to make its choice.
The 2008 version of the film takes a different tack. Its message is environmental. Klaatu is not a humanoid, but has taken on the form of a human (to reveal what he was 'before he was human', he says, 'would only frighten you'), and has come not to preserve the safety of other planets but to preserve life itself on earth. In the new version of the film, humanity is seen as a threat to all other life on earth. It is only the human species that lives out of harmony with the 'web of life.' Klaatu's people have been observing us for a very long time, and he has been sent to obliterate us in order to protect all other species here and to ensure that earth remains capable of sustaining life, as it is one of the precious few in the universe with that capability. The annihilation begins in a fascinating, and I must say really scary way, and is only halted when Klaatu himself sees that there is a chance, however small, that humankind could evolve and bring itself back into balance with nature. Unlike in the original version, though, humanity is not left with a choice. When Klaatu makes the earth stand still, he doesn't do it for 30 minutes--he leaves it that way. Technology is dead. Nothing works anymore. Presumably, nothing will ever work again. If that doesn't bring us back into harmony with the earth, I don't know what would! As he warns Helen Benson, the scientist who aids him on his mission, the only chance for survival means a complete change to our way of life. Think about what a complete lack of technology would mean. The population would decline immensely, bringing our population back into a natural balance with other species. We would not be able to live in certain parts of the earth--we would return to our rightful habitats, take up our real diets again, and find ourselves back in balance with the other species living on earth. At least, that's the message I got from this film. It is far, far harsher than the original. They are left with the chance to do nothing-- mutually assured destruction is their option, and they can keep their technology, to be guarded over by an alien one. But the 2008 film's human race is simply sent back to the stone age, where perhaps we belong. And, presumably, from whence we will evolve along more harmonious and enlightened lines the second time around.
The two films offer fascinating perspective on the cultural mores of the times. Klaatu in the original film is a blatant messianic figure, going by the pseudonym of 'Mr. Carpenter', an obvious reference to Jesus. Klaatu also speaks of the 'almighty spirit' when asked if Gort were able to bring him back to life: 'No, that power is reserved to the almighty spirit.' In fact, Klaatu is practically entirely messianic: he arrives from heaven with a message to save mankind, which no one wants to hear, goes by the name of Carpenter, is killed and resurrected, delivers his 'Divine Commission' and ascends again into heaven, leaving mankind to make its choice (accept his message or be damned!).
The contemporary Klaatu offers only a vaguely Buddhist perspective. He shocks a dead man back into life, and when Helen Benson's stepson grieves for his dead father and begs Klaatu to resurrect him, he says nothing about an almighty spirit. 'Nothing ever truly dies,' he says. 'The universe wastes nothing. Everything is simply transformed.' Well, Thich Nhat Hanh could not have said it better himself! Either tha is a Buddhist sentiment or the ultimate message about recycling, but either way it is hardly messianic. There is a Jesus-esque self-sacrifice, but nothing heavy-handed, and we get the feeling that there will be no resurrection from it, not to spoil to the entire plot.
I also find it interesting that throughout the 1951 film Klaatu refers constantly to 'your planet', 'your world' and the people of earth say 'our planet' again and again. Yet in the 2008 version, the first time a human (Regina Jackson, representative of the US President) refers to 'our planet', Klaatu turns to her sharply and says, 'Your planet? No. It is not.' I really love that scene:
Jackson: Do you represent a civilization?
Klaatu: I represent a group of civilizations.
Jackson: Where is this group of civilizations?
Klaatu: All around you.
Klaatu: Do you speak for the entire human race?
Jackson: I speak for the president of the United States. Now please tell me: Why have you come to our planet?
Klaatu: 'Your' planet?
Jackson: Yes, this is our planet.
Klaatu: No. It is not.
I couldn't help but think, 'I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees.'
Well, I could carry on about the depiction of women, the parent-child relationship, and the special effects, but I'll stop here.
I really liked this film. I even liked Keanu Reeves's wooden perfomance. Who better to play someone who is awkward in his own body than someone who has always seemed awkward in his own body?
Someday, people are going to look back on this film as a moment frozen in time, where you can see all sorts of things about the way we view ourselves, each other, our planet, women, parenting, governments--just like you can look at the 1951 version now. And I think that's how the new version captures the spirit of the original. Intentionally or not.