Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Day the Earth Stood in the Balance

First, a confession. I've never watched the 1951 version of The Day the Earth Stood Still. Nor have I read the short story on which it is based, Harry Bates's "Farewell to the Master" (at least according to the wiki gods).

But I did know enough about them from my interest in the conventions of sf's "first contact" and "alien invasion" subgenres to know what to expect before I sat down to watch the 2008 version. I knew that it was one of the few such movies in Cold War America to use those subgenres to critique the paranoia, militarism, and authoritarianism of a nuclear United States. I knew enough to list it as a precursor to Independence Day (the quintessential American response to War of the Worlds), a movie I love to teach in my Introduction to American Studies course.

What I don't know is whether I should blame the limitations of the 2008 version of The Day the Earth Stood Still on its adherence to its sources. Don't get me wrong--the movie gets a lot of things right. It made good dramatic and allusive sense to bring out the double meaning of apocalypse by making Klaatu more of a second-coming-type Jesus figure, bringing judgment to the sinful rather than simply bringing a warning to humanity, as in the original. Making it a chase movie also probably improved on the original, from a narrative standpoint, at least. And turning the original's focus on nuclear weapons in the Cold War into a focus on environmental and ecological issues in the 21st century was a canny political move, not only as a critique of the Bush administration and a spur to the Obama administration, but also as an attempt to define the most pressing global issue in our times. Any movie that tries to start a dialogue between fans of Left Behind and An Inconvenient Truth is doing interesting cultural work, at the very least. There's a lot that's teachable about this movie.

But my impatience, even irritation, with it remains. It's not over-the-top cliche-saturated hyper-cheesy fun like Independence Day (for pre-9/11 audiences, at least) or even a charming, nostalgic, and well-crafted faux-period piece like Iron Giant. Instead, it suffers many of the same faults as Sheri Tepper's much more interesting and better-thought-out 2000 novel, The Fresco, chief among them didacticism. War and peace, fear and love don't have to be treated as simplistically as they are in The Day the Earth Stood Still. Yes, it's almost a nice line when the Secretary of Defense waxes on the lessons of first contact history and it's almost a nice idea when the Nobel Prize-winning biologist argues that species only evolve when their survival is at stake, but even Kathy Bates and John Cleese couldn't quite pull them off. As much as it pains me to say it, Independence Day did a much better job riffing on the conventions of their shared subgenres: alongside its rah-rah Americanism, the movie is pretty green, with the aliens representing industrial-technological consumer capitalism's own worst tendencies and all humanity left to find a different path at the end of the movie.

Finally, I hate sf movies that leave me arguing over plausibility, but that's what the 2008 version of The Day the Earth Stood Still ends up doing best. If there are really so few planetary ecosystems capable of sustaining complex life in the universe, why would the alien civilizations only plant one long-term observer on the planet and wait a human lifetime before acting? Why wouldn't they intervene more directly and more quickly? Or at least collect a lot more ethnographic data? If the filmmakers gave even a hint of the internal politics among the aliens and what they had been doing between 1928 and 2008, questions like these wouldn't be so annoying. But tougher ones would remain. Why only 1 representative? Why the United States? Wouldn't it make more sense to send someone--or even a small team--to each of the world's leading political, business, scientific, and artistic figures? And even if it could have been hinted that all this had already been done and that Klaatu's coming to Earth was the final result of a longer evaluative process, problems still remain. In 80 years the best solution the supposedly enlightened and advanced aliens could come up with was xenocide? If so, why not focus more on Klaatu as a relatively low-level functionary "just following orders" in the banality of alien evil sense, rather than make him into a surprisingly ignorant (and inept) figure of final judgment (I mean, if he wanted to address the UN, why didn't he just wait until he was used to his human body and land right at the UN Building instead of in Central Park--or, better yet, broadcast his intentions to the world before leaving his spacecraft?)?

In the end, Klaatu decides the problem is not us--that we can change--and goes with his backup plan to the nanotech-bugs-eating-everything-human-and-human-made one, which is apparently to disable all fossil-fuel-based and electrical power generation on the planet and leave, taking samples of most species on the planet away with him. (I guess our technology was the problem, after all, or perhaps our underlying way of life.) And that's that. Maybe they're just preparing us for a postapocalyptic sequel, but I have to suspect that Hollywood's butchering of Brin's The Postman precludes that. It's too bad, because it would be interesting to see what happens to the humans and the aliens--and how the filmmakers would use that to get us thinking about what a post-petroleum future ought to be like.

[Update 1 (6:54 am): Purposely wrote this without reading any other reactions to the movie. But it's nice to see that Geeks of Doom's Empress Eve already found other plot howlers (although I think #12 can be partially explained by the fact that the bridge is built into the earth, not to mention by Klaatu's line that he's holding the nanotech bugs off).]