Great science fiction always has a prophetic parable at its core. With either satire or irony, good science fiction can cause audience members to leave the theater not just exuberated by roller coaster thrills, but uplifted by thought-provoking concepts. However, as the saying goes, if you want to send a message, call Western Union. The first objective of a movie should be to entertain its demographic audience. That can be said of both the 1951 version and now Scott Derrickson’s update of The Day the Earth Stood Still. But which is the best?
The classic Robert Wise version of The Day The Earth Stood Still is now in pristine condition on DVD. Along with its antinuclear drive, Wise’s Day is one of the few science fiction films that acknowledge God. For example, when the alien is asked if he has the power of life and death, he responds, “No, that is reserved for the Almighty Spirit.” Here’s the irony to that inclusion. In the DVD-accompanying documentary, director Wise states that he was unaware and hadn’t intended on using any religious symbolism. Interestingly, the best part of the film was a happy accident.
In the update, director and brother in Christ Scott Derrickson replaces the political agenda of the original with a pro-eco message, and mutes the Christian symbolism (though it is still there).
“The original was so rooted in the social issues of its time,” says Derrickson. “It’s so intelligent and interesting self-reflective commentary during the cold War. It dealt with things that were controversial at the time. I loved telling basically the same story, yet bringing in social issues that we have now.”
One intriguing fact concerning the Robert Wise version has to do with the filmmakers’ intent on making an antinuclear warning statement. It was the 1950s and many were disturbed by the proliferation of atomic bombs. Just a few years before, they had seen the devastation of Japan in order to end WWII. Though President Truman’s decision to drop the bombs over Nagasaki and Hiroshima saved thousands of allied soldiers, a few back home were unwilling to accept his resolution. A few years later those voices were given credence (deserved or not) by Robert Wise’s man from outer space declaring that if we don’t stop making bombs, his planet would destroy Earth. So, this fictional planet had devastating weapons that they use in order to prevent others from using devastating weapons. Despite the filmmakers’ peace theme, doesn’t that fact signal the sanctification of such force? A bit hypocritical unless you believe it is only America capable of such destruction.
Derrickson, on the other hand, has learned to live with the bomb, if not love it. He has turned his attention to the new threat. His creatures from space are ticked off by our devastation of the Earth’s natural resources. His aliens, a form of intergalactic space patrol, are intent on saving our world by removing us permanently.
“But it’s not really a message movie,” says Derrickson. “I’m not trying to tell people to do anything in particular. I’m just trying to be entertaining. And maybe represent the world where we are right now. But I liked the idea that the solutions to the problems that we’re creating in our world come at a price.”
Jennifer Connelly, playing scientist Dr. Helen Benson, is key to helping Klaatu understand the other side of our destructive nature. She adds, “What I liked about Patricia Neal’s character (her part in the original) is that she is open-minded, she’s very strong. She’s free thinking. Individual. I thought that was important to carry over. To be a human without prejudice, without bias. I felt that was essential. And that you could feel the depth of her love.”
Derrickson sums up the film’s intent: “Jennifer’s character states, ‘We can change.’ I guess that’s the message. But the solution will come at a price. And my question is, are we willing to pay that price?
“Nether film is cynical. In our version, Klaatu learns as much from us as we do from him. He learns about human nature. He takes human form when he arrives and begins to see that there is more than just the obvious fact that we are destructive. He sees this other side to us. It’s profound to him and startling.”
“He starts out as an alien and becomes more human as the film progresses,” says the film’s star, Keanu Reeves. “That’s why I came aboard; besides it being worthwhile story, the character intrigued me.”
When the director was asked which was his favorite scene, this reviewer was pleased to discover we shared the same outlook. “When Klaatu meets with an elderly Asian at a McDonald’s in New Jersey, that’s my favorite sequence in the film. There was something both beautiful and funny hearing these two speaking in Mandarin about human nature while sitting in a fast food restaurant in New Jersey. The elder man states that yes, we are bent toward destruction. And yet he can’t describe the other side of our nature. But he says he will die with us because we are that meaningful. Mr. Wu plants something in Klaatu’s mind. At this stage, Klaatu can’t quite grasp what he’s being told that this other alien will stay here and die with us because he’s grown to love what we can be.”
As for the muted spirituality, Derrickson made it clear that the Christ analogy was indeed still much a part of the story. “In the beginning when they take a DNA sample, the wound in his hand represents the stigmata. And at the end, he makes a sacrificial death. The final affirmation that he’s leaving is the ascension. And yet, he’s not gone. He’s not dead.”
So, which film is the better? Both have their strengths, though the original has fewer weaknesses. The sensibilities of today’s filmgoers should be comforted by the new version’s onscreen warfare and more sinister Klaatu, while film buffs may prefer the more trenchant script and atmospheric Bernard Herrmann score of the original. But ultimately, both raise an important question: “Klaatu barada nikto.” What in outer space does that mean!