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Monday, March 11, 2013

Retro Nostalgia: The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), the Hero Scientist, and the Possible Utopia(?)

There's something truly nostalgic about SF narratives that make the scientist the hero.  There aren't a lot of those narratives left, if we're honest.  Characters use science, sure, but they are rarely the creators of science, or its purveyors.  But not the old school SF movies.  Oh no.  In a lot of those stories, scientists are front and center.  They're occasionally the bad guy, but they're always the ones figuring things out, discovering the new and amazing things about the world.  Even in Forbidden Planet, in which the main scientist is, for all intensive purposes, the villain (well, not really -- his id is the villain), the romanticism of science and the scientist is crucial to the plot.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) falls into the positive variety of these pro-scientist films.  Most of us know the story, primarily because it was recently remade into what I can only describe as a film without any substance:  an alien named Klaatu appears on Earth, which terrifies the hairless ape creatures; Klaatu desperately tried to make humanity listen to him, but in the end, he's forced to use the threat of annihilation to, we hope, bring humanity in line -- for self-
preservation of course.  Throughout this somewhat dystopian plot -- aliens telling us we have to shape up or die is hardly utopian, after all -- we are gifted with several reminders that the scientists are the true "rational" ones on Earth (hang in there -- I'll critique this later).  There are two perfectly solid examples of this, which I'll approach in semi-chronological order.
First, there's Dr. Barnhardt, who is effectively the "most intelligent man" in the continental United States (or, at the very least, the smartest man in D.C.).  When Klaatu first seeks his help, he discovers the Dr. working on a complicated math equation on a chalkboard -- perhaps one of the most common cliches of science given to us by movies (Indiana Jones, anyone?) -- the purpose of which is never explained.  But the reason Klaatu wants Barnhardt's help is because the regular folks haven't exactly been forthcoming.  Let's face it, when your first day on Earth is spent getting shot by a bunch of trigger happy young men riding on tanks, and then shoved into a hospital and kept there against your will, followed by a long-winded explanation that your puny little alien brain -- which managed to get you 250,000,000 miles across space -- can't possibly comprehend human politics...well, you'd probably skip town and seek out someone who just has to be rational.  And Dr. Barnhardt, it turns out, is supremely rational.  He not only has science smarts -- though not nearly as much as Klaatu, with all his math magic -- but he also recognizes the utter stupidity of provoking an alien race into using violence as a communication method.  

When violence, trickery, imprisonment, and rampant fear-mongering (hooray yellow journalism) are the societal response to your presence, it makes a lot of sense to respond in kind.  But Dr. Barnhardt desperately wants to avoid that.  He convinces Klaatu that perhaps a non-violent demonstration would look better and then proceeds to set up a meeting between Mr. Alien and a bunch of unnamed, but certainly important scientists.  In other words, the only ones who actually take Klaatu seriously as someone genuinely interested in Earth's well being are scientists.  The military just wants to shove Klaatu under the watchful eyes of unsophisticated, disinterested guards and subject him to nationalistic politics; the scientists want to help Klaatu make his point.  Oh, and since I haven't mentioned it yet, you really can't avoid the 1951 political message here.  By 1951, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were the only countries actively testing nuclear weapons, though certainly not the only ones working on them.  The rise of atomic/nuclear weapons so concerned the world that it led to the Cold War (which you all already know) and to Oppenheimer (who worked on the Manhattan Project) declaring the invention of the atomic bomb a grave mistake:
We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, 'Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.' I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.
Ironically, Klaatu's race literally became the destroyer of worlds (he's our second science example, actually).  By the end of The Day the Earth Stood Still, Klaatu has no choice but to warn humanity that if they continue on this destructive, nuclear path, they will compel his species to neutralize (annihilate) the Earth for the benefit of everyone else.  But in his final speech, he also tells us one crucial fact:  science has provided the resolution to the natural inclination towards violence among intelligent life (I interpret his words to suggest that there are other intelligent species out there).  Thus, Gort, the "monstrous machine" of the story, is little more than the product of scientists to curb violent tendencies -- there are many like it that sit around as a giant deterrent against poor behavior, which has somehow created a peaceful society that is both supremely powerful and disinterested in violence except when the equilibrium of their society is threatened.  So much for that narrative about nuclear weapons, right?  After all, if the reason behind nuclear armament is to deter your enemy from attacking you, then Gort is little more than a giant, walking robotic nuke (minus the radiation).
If we're honest, this is all a remarkably utopian view of the scientist.  So many novels and films have tried to imagine utopian societies and failed miserably, either intentionally or because utopias simply don't work.  But is there something inherently dystopian about creating your own self-"cleaning" agent?  If Gort is a society's solution to preventing violence and progressing forward (and it works), then I can't help leaning towards the utopian, if only because minor sacrifices in freedoms are outweighed by the security of the peaceful progression of a society.  And The Day the Earth Stood Still doesn't hesitate to remind us that Klaatu's people have improved just about everything about themselves:  they can travel great distances in little time; they can heal at an alarming rate; they are immeasurably smart (by human standards); they have created astonishing technologies (by human standards); and they have increased their average lifespan to 130 years (I honestly think this is pathetically low, but I suppose when half your young people were dying in war, 130 sounded really good in 1951).  Those sound like good things, if you ask me.  I'd much rather cure diseases that spend an eternity blowing people to smithereens.

Yet, I can't feeling uncomfortable about, well, feeling comfortable with Klaatu's people.  To draw on my American heritage, I find myself conflicted by the sacrifices necessary to achieve a society governed by robotic overlords.  After all, it's not exactly clear how Gort functions as a semi-intelligent machine.  What are his criteria for "violence"?  Can he evolve to account for changes in destructive behavior?  With all the discussion we're having about bullying these days, it doesn't seem outside the realm of possibility that Gort would have to adapt to account for emotionally destructive methods too.  I don't know if that's stretching too far.  But there's no indication that Gort actually adapts.  Klaatu only tells us that Gort responds to violence, not mean behavior.  Thus, the fundamental problem with the future proposed by Klaatu for humanity is its universality.  Or, to put it in another way:  it is rigid and uncompromising.  Klaatu's people have chosen a set of moral standards for behavior that cannot account for the complexities of actual society.  Many religious texts do the same thing; religions have had to respond to a progressing society by reconsidering how to re-frame various religious teachings (slavery in the Bible or, more recently, racism in Mormon teachings).  In that sense, The Day the Earth Stood Still really does fall into the tradition of impossible utopias that expose their own flaws.  Klaatu's people are a dream one moment, and a nightmare the next.  There is no such thing as a static culture, after all.

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  1. I do love how often scientists are the protagonists and heroes in these old movies and stories. (This Island Earth: Scientists save us all!)

  2. Even when they're kind of silly and caricatured, it's definitely worth loving. I'd really like to know what changed in film, though.