The Iron Giant, Brad Bird’s 1999 directorial feature-length animated debut, is, a first and foremost a feel-good children’s movie, yet as a film set in the earlier years of the Cold War, half a decade after The Day The Earth Stood Still was released, it also tackles the same issues surrounding violence as a methodology and provides an intriguing counterpoint and complication of the earlier work.
Iron Giant opens with the recently achieved launch of Sputnik and explicitly deals with anxiety about annihilation, which was not yet so fully developed when The Day The Earth Stood Still was made, and as Iron Giant is a product of the 90’s, it is clearly a retroactive commentary on Cold War anxiety, and not a representative product of it. The central problematic figures of both, however, are quite analogous: seemingly all-powerful robotic beings from outside the Earth who use violence to counter violence. In Day, the purpose of the robot Gort is laid out very plainly by the alien emissary Klaatu, but in Iron Giant the titular robot arrives on Earth with no explanatory companion, and a case of amnesia which leaves his true purpose unclear even to himself. This makes the Iron Giant a more complicated figure, more in line with actors in the real world that attempt to use violence to quell violence.
So: Sputnik is launched and not too long afterwards, a skyscraper-sized metal creature plummets into the sea off the coast of Maine, a young boy finds it, discovers it has a (metaphorical) heart of gold, finds a beatnik artist-run scrapyard with metal for it to eat, and hides it from the federal agent who is sure that it’s a dangerous Soviet weapon. Along the way, boy and ‘bot come across a deer felled by hunters, ‘bot learns that guns kill, and, when boy then plays with a toy ray gun, the sight of the fake gun activates some as-yet latent weapon that shoots from his eyes.
This leads to a series of events in which the US Army attacks the metal creature, who, when it thinks the boy has been killed, transforms from cute tin man to frightening killing machine, straight from War of Worlds. Those being attacked by the robot don’t know that it has, so far, been a friendly companion to a young boy, learning about the world in a childlike manner, and is now reacting to violence done against himself and his human friend. They do not associate their actions with his, and have no particular reason to think that the robot was not in fact sent as an instrument of destruction. In fact, as viewers even we cannot be sure of this: the Iron Giant’s transformation into a weapons platform is accompanied by the fixing of a dent in his head that is suggested to be the cause of his amnesia. He may, in fact, be reverting to his original programming to destroy Earth’s inhabitants, and when he sacrifices himself to save the townspeople from the nuclear missiles that were foolishly launched at him, we cannot be sure if this defensive, sacrificial act is in his original nature, or if it derived from traits learned during his time with the boy.
Whether the original intent behind sending the giant to Earth was a friendly or aggressive one, whether it is armed for war or armed to function as a Gort-like anti-violence police, there is very little way for the inhabitants of Earth to ascertain the truth, they can only directly react to what they see: a super-weapon spreading devastation. As viewers of the film, we have an emotional connection to the robot and believe that if the Army had not attacked him, he would not be attacking them.
As informed Westerners, we may think that the United States and the rest of the International Security Assistance Force had good reason to invade Afghanistan to destroy al-Qaeda training camps and deny them a safe haven, and we may think that remaining there can be justified as necessary to prevent the takeover of that country by violent extremists and to improve the “quality of life” of those living there. (Leaving aside for the moment how flawed this thinking may be.) However, when surveys show 92% of Southern Afghans never having heard of the 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, it’s hard to see how this narrative can be communicated or accepted by Afghans themselves: they are much more likely to see Western military forces as a metallic, mechanized giant on a rampage. Even as informed observers, can we really be sure that the actions taken by this mechanized system are purely defensive in nature, and not an emotional outlashing or the expression of some fundamental programming?
By making drawing out the complications that arise from the sort of armed enforcement of order present in the Day The Earth Stood Still, The Iron Giant comes closer to portraying how such an approach often plays out in the real world, and suggests that the nature of armed intervention is largely determined by how it seen: it is only a paranoid, militarized mindset that turns the giant into a problem to be tackled by the military, and an outlook with such a limited toolset will tend to create more and more problems that appear to be thusly fixable.