On Thursday, I had the opportunity to attend a 35-mm screening of 1951’s The Day The Earth Stood Still, a film I’d actually not yet seen, although my penchant for bad Keanu Reeves vehicles had previously brought me in contact with the forced, formulaic 2008 remake.
While many of the plot points have since become the stuff of sci-fi cliche, it still has considerable charms – the central acting duo is superb, with a nuance performance from Patricia Neal’s and Michael Rennie’s bemused but earnest professorly Klaatu seemingly planting the seeds for both Spock and David Bowie. Compared to any movie made for mass consumption today, it gets straight to the point, the premise being well established within the first three minutes, mercifully sparing the audience from the boilerplate character introduction that has become de rigueur. The dramatic event that serves as the film’s namesake is also refreshingly low-key: most of the Earth’s electric devices stop working for 30 minutes, something that no-one would bat an eye at in a more contemporary sci-fi film.
Of course, The Day The Earth Stood Still isn’t really a science fiction thriller, it’s a classic Cold War “why can’t we all get along” nuclear-anxiety lecture piece. However, the mechanism through which this lesson is imparted by Klaatu (the assembled species of the other planets apparently speak Esperanto) works to remind us of the common ideological roots of neo-conservatism and liberal interventionism, and how the Beltway view of the world has developed over the last 50 years.
Klaatu comes to visit “in peace and with goodwill,” but the message he delivers at the end of the film contains an odd sort of peace. He states that the peoples of other planets now live without violence between them, but if the aggression and war that humans currently practice on Earth is brought out beyond its atmosphere, they will have no choice but to destroy the entire species, perhaps the whole planet, although what exactly all other species of flora and fauna have to do with it is never made clear.
This kind of peace – be nice or be destroyed – seems to have become the guiding principle of a military superpower which for the last few decades has been utterly incompetent in attempts to negotiate the prevention or termination of violent conflict elsewhere in the world, but has, with some regularity, been willing to summon the Iron Smiley Face of armed intervention, from the troubled actions in the Balkans and Libya to the clearly deranged neo-imperalist invasion of Iraq. (While there were enough commercial and geostrategic interests in the later case for the idea of “intervention” to be bypassed entirely, enough of the people who planned and supported the invasion believed it for it to be relevant.)
What’s more interesting is the method by which the other planets came to live in peace in the first place – they built robots that would destroy them if they acted aggressively against each other. So, while The Day The Earth Stood Still might seem to be a cry against the madness of a nuclear-armed world, the answer presented in the plot is actually just another form of mutually assurred destruction. A galaxy of Gort-enforced order reminds one of America’s position in today’s world a technical sense, as we, too, are now instructing machines to enforce a moral order, as with the increasingly visible unmanned aerial vehicles that run illegal CIA assissination campaigns over Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen, and now appearing over Libya (or, leaving the UAV’s aside, as with a military whose freedom of action is based entirely on technological superiority).
Klaatu’s solution to violence shares with the dominant Western order a basic inability to craft solutions with tools besides those which created the problem under consideration. This conceptual trap leads to the tremendous waste of using foreign occupation to try to fix Afghani problems that have in large part been caused by decades of foreign occupation, the waste of spending over $500,000 per missle to destroy miltiary vehicles on Libyan highways that the major Western powers were only all too eager to sell to Qadaffi mere years ago.
50 years, ago, the well meaning American idea of peace was a world of robots poised to violently punish the violent, and it’s only too easy to see how that contradiction has remained and festered in the national imagination since.