The Day the Earth Stood Still

An article in today’s New York Times traces this summer’s crop of doomsday movies back to the 1951 classic sci-fi film The Day the Earth Stood Still. In that movie an alien named Klaatu travels to Earth with his robot companion, Gort, to issue a warning about how humanity was on the verge of destroying itself. This movie was remade in 2008 with Keanu Reeves as Klaatu. Where the 1951 film was a plea for world effective global cooperation to alleviate the threat of nuclear war, the 2008 remake had an environmental message. Receiving largely negative reviews, it’s actually one of the more intelligent and thoughtful reworkings of a classic Cold war science fiction film—for the most part, anyway. Worth seeking out is the three-disc DVD edition that contains both versions of the film, along with some nice extras and interesting commentary.


The 2008 remake was actually the fifth version of this story. The 1951 film was based on a short story called “Farewell to the Master” by Harry Bates, published in the magazine Astounding Stories in 1940. “Farewell to the Master” is now in the public domain and available online or as a free ebook. Edmund H. North wrote the screenplay for the 1951 film and the Hollywood Radio Theater adapted the 1951 film as a one-hour radio play a couple of years later. The radio play stayed close to the film in terms of plot and characters, and featured most of the same actors, though Patricia Neal is absent.

The Day the Earth Stood Still
The Day the Earth Stood Still by the Hollywood Radio Theater

Marvel comics published a comic book adaptation of “Farewell to the Master” for its Worlds Unknown series in 1973 with Bates’s blessing.

With so many versions of the same story, it’s interesting to trace how the adaptations have changed over time. For example, the female presence in each version of the story differs markedly. Women are largely absent from Bates’s original story. In the 1951 film and the 2008 remake, Helen Benson is a war widow caring for her young son. In both versions, she is heroic and ultimately saves humanity, but where Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) is a nurturing homemaker in the 1951 film, she is recast (Jennifer Connelly) as a scientist with highly specialized knowledge who has difficulty connecting emtionally with her son (actually her step-son, played by Jaden Smith) in the 2008 remake. Marvel’s 1973 comic book adaptation of “Farewell to the Master” includes an intrepid gonzo photojournalist Amy O’Hara who goes to great lengths to get her story.

The elements that are consistent to all versions of the story are: 1) the Earth is visited by an alien named Klaatu, who is human in form with technology that is far beyond our anything on Earth, 2) the spacecraft lands in a very prominent location in the United States, even though the purpose of the visit is global in nature, 2) Klaatu is shot almost as soon as he steps out of the spacecraft, 3) A very large robot follows Klaatu out of the space craft, 3) the robot appears to become stationary once Klaatu has been moved and is subjected to a variety of experiments, 5) Klaatu dies, 6) the robot reactivates, 7) Klaatu is not ultimately in control of the robot. Despite these similar elements, the themes of each version are quite different.

Harry Bates’ original short story is about the limits of technology. The focus of the original story is on Gnut (as the robot is called called in this version of the story), and Klaatu has only a minor role. Klaatu is shot and killed as he steps out of his spacecraft, and the robot, watched closely by a photojounalist Cliff Sutherland, tries to restore life to Klaatu. While he is able to revive Klaatu for a time using a recording of his voice, the recording is not perfect, which results in only a temporary resurrection. In Bates’ surprise ending, the robot reveals that he, and not Klaatu, is the master, Despite his great power, however, the inherent limitations of technology mean that Gort cannot the power to give life.

The 1951 film directed by Robert Wise, recast Klaatu (Michael Rennie) as a messianic figure, who comes to Earth with a stern warning to the nations of the Earth to stop building nuclear bombs or else the Earth will be destroyed (seems to be a contradiction here, but I digress). It would have made more sense for the 1951 to travel to New York to address the United Nations, as the 2008 Klaatu (Keanu Reeves) tries to do, but the film chose to retain the location of the landing as told by Harry Bates. In the original short story, the ship lands close enough to the Smithsonian Institution that they were able to build an adjoining wing to enclose the spacecraft and Gnut, but in the 1951 film, Klaatu’s spaceship lands near the White House on the Ellipse on a baseball diamond. After surviving being shot, Klaatu escapes and assumes the identity of “Mr. Carpenter” and ventures out to learn about human culture, or at least young Bobby Benson’s (Billy Gray) version of it. The Christ imagery extends to his resurrection after being gunned down yet again. Despite the messianic portrayal of Klaatu, he expresses an Old Testament message of wrath when the scientists of the world are finally assembled. He threatens destruction and informs the people of Earth that the only hope is to turn over control to peacekeeping robots with great power, destructive and otherwise.

The development of Klaatu’s character in the 2008 remake, directed by Scott Derrickson, goes in the opposite direction. Klaatu starts out as more with more of an Old Testament outlook, threatening to destroy humanity for defiling creation. As his interacts with people, however, he develops a more sympathetic view of them, which causes him to call off his mission of wrath. He ultimately commits an act of self-sacrifice to save humanity. While Gort (or rather the nano-Gort swarm) wreaks havoc on New Jersey, Klaatu makes his way to his ship to send out an electromagnetic pulse, which renders Gort harmless but also disables most of the technology on Earth. In effect, Klaatu pushes the reset button on technological development, giving humanity another chance to get it right. The day referenced in the title of the film is an act of self-sacrifice to save humanity, rather than a demonstration of overwhelming technological force, as in the 1951 film. Either way, though, the destruction of humanity is averted.

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