By Madonna Hernandez
Today’s world bares a striking resemblance to the one portrayed in the black and white 1951 science fiction classic, The Day the Earth Stood Still. It may appear to be hokey and irrelevant but a closer examination of the film gives us a glimpse into a time and place that feels very familiar. Beyond the surface, ignoring the outdated special effects, lies a film with a real moral center and a message that transcends time. The message is one of peace, pacifism, unity between nations, and the warning that violence will ultimately lead to our downfall.
With each technological advancement, humanity may seem closer together, within reach to one another and much more aware and accepting of each other’s differences. At least, in theory. The world we actually live in is filled with fear and intolerance. People are more inclined to gravitate towards those who think like they do rather than those who challenge their ideas. And those who do challenge them are met with hostility, anger and violence. Somehow, a movie from an era long since past feels more equipped to help us understand the anger and violence that permeates society and what to do about it.
As the movie begins, a spaceship makes its way to Washington D.C and this fictional world is paralyzed by a feeling of impending doom. The people of planet earth brace themselves for the unexpected arrival of otherworldly beings, and they act in irrational and judgmental ways. When Klatu, the highly intelligent and rational being from another planet, steps off his spaceship with Gort his imposing robot, by his side, he is armed with a rather strange-looking spiked object in tow. The U.S Army, acting on the idea of shooting first and thinking later, fires at Klatu and his strange-looking object. Though he had no anger his eyes, no malicious intent and gave no hint that he would be of harm to them, he is introduced to Planet Earth with a round of friendly fire. Welcome to our universe, strange visitor. We’re perfectly nice people when we aren’t shooting you or each other.
The object, as it turns out, was a harmless peace offering from the visitor’s planet. Klatu, after displaying the damaged thing, says: “It was a gift for your president, with this he could have studied life on other planets.” Humankind has shot itself in the foot and does so even today. The real enemy of Earth and the real threat to our safety is ourselves. Klatu warns that his planet will destroy our planet if we do not learn to put aside our weapons and atomic exploits; we will be perceived as a danger and a threat to peace everywhere. Our violence will only serve to endanger ourselves.
We currently live in an era of shoot first and ask questions later. Society is plagued by police shootings of civilians, mass shootings in shopping malls, schools and movie theaters, and terrorist attacks. Countries are experiencing political or social upheaval. Questions of borders, boundaries and refugee politics torment humanity. Many nations now have the capability to acquire and create nuclear weapons. But where will all of this lead us? We are one international incident away from the destruction of our planet.
“I am fearful when I see people substituting fear for reason.” Klatu says this as he sees the world become panicked at the implications of his extraterrestrial presence. In the U.S, and especially since 2011, political leaders have acted primarily on fear, targeting anyone who fits the prototype of a terrorist. The prototype consists of brown skinned individuals with a Anglo-Saxon names. This country has continued to substitute fear for reason, continued to participate in war, continued to stereotype and make judgments about people and places that it probably shouldn’t. Klatu, the protagonist alien, was talking about a world that existed back in the 50’s but he may as well have been referring to today. In one scene, as he has breakfast at the house he is staying in, he calmly reads the newspaper as the radio plays in the background. The radio announcer’s voice, in a tone of hurried desperation describes what the “spaceman” might be doing now that he is “on the loose”, what the spaceman has planned, why they should fear it and the plans of terrible destruction he will cause. The camera, moving slowly and ironically, pans over to a calm Klatu just sitting at the table. He is undoubtedly harmless and probably more level-headed and rational than anyone on that planet for sure.
As Klatu walks the streets, he overhears the overblown and very obviously mistaken ideas about the “spaceman’s” appearance. Does he have three eyes, a big square head, and lethal death rays for eyes? Everyone wonders what he looks like and they assume the worst. They have no idea that the scary spaceman is actually walking amongst them, not that different from them at all.
In one of the opening scenes of the film, Klatu asks for a meeting with all the nations of the world. The officer he is speaking to scoffs at this idea, saying that’s it’s unrealistic considering all the tension which exists between nations. Klatu bluntly proclaims that he’s traveled millions of miles to come to this planet; suggesting that nations putting aside menial differences pales in comparison. And yet we are unable to unite for much of anything. Violence and war are invariant; the only things we can be sure will always exist. What is it that we hope to gain by this violence towards one another?
The compassion that the mother and son, Helen and Bobby, show to Klatu represents an ideal. The world would be a better place if we showed more empathy and embraced our differences with curiosity instead of with fear and aggression. When Klatu says “Violent action is the only one your people understand,” he is right. He is subsequently shot and seemingly killed. That’s how humans treat the things they fear: destroy them.
But perhaps peace can be achieved if we heed Klatu’s warnings. He says: “There must be security for all, or no one is secure. This does not mean giving up any freedom, except the freedom to act irresponsibly.”