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Where is Gort When You Need Him?

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“The 1950s were not all ‘Happy Days.’ The war was over but the aftershock was still very present. Post-WWII paranoia spawned from the fear of the new atomic age.”

Movie remakes can be hazardous. Few can compete with the originals. Several come to mind: Goodbye Mr. Chips, Mighty Joe Young, Sunset Boulevard, The Time Machine, Journey to the Center of the Earth, The Lady Killers, Planet of the Apes, Psycho, 12 Angry Men, Cheaper by the Dozen, and Miracle on 34th Street. There are exceptions: The Man Who Knew Too Much, Ben Hur, Tombstone (a remake of My Darling Clementine), Ocean’s Eleven, and The Dark Knight. In other cases, both the original and the remake are good: Pygmalion and My Fair Lady, Omega Man and I Am Legend, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, King Kong (this does not apply to the 1976 version starring Jessica Lang).

Some movies can’t be remade because of the historical setting, pacing, story, and character development of the original. Many remakes are ruined by the addition of overused special effects. The remake of the 1951 science fiction classic The Day the Earth Still is a case in point. There are too many elements of the original that can never be recaptured in a remake. When I saw the remake of Planet of the Apes and heard the line “Get your stinking hands off me, you damned dirty human,” a variation of “Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!,” the first words the apes hear Charlton Heston speak in the original, I cringed. What was used as a shock to the simians who had never heard a human speak became a throw-away line in the remake. To further insult us, Heston appears as Tim Roth’s father, the ape leader in the remake, whose dying words are his classic final words (spoiler) from the original: “Damn you. Damn you all.” “Damn this remake” would have been a more appropriate line.

The original production of The Day the Earth Stood Still is an adaptation of the short story “Farewell to the Master” written by Harry Bates that first appeared in Astounding Science Fiction magazine in October 1940. The film diverges significantly from the original story and is set against the backdrop of Cold War tensions and the very real threat of nuclear annihilation by warring nations, most specifically the United States and the USSR and the possibility that earthlings will take their weapons of war to the other planets and spread their nuclear cancer to civilizations that have done away with armed conflict. Compare this with the intergalactic threat that might reach the stars in the remake. Come on, you know what it is. That’s right. Global warming. Please tell me why planetary civilizations billions of miles from Earth would be concerned about Earth’s real or imagined environmental problems. P. J. Gladnick of Newsbusters expressed my sentiments exactly: Let’s “have Gort destroy all the studios unless the producers quit making lousy movie remakes with leftwing themes.”

If you have not seen the 1951 original, here’s a short review. The film begins with the arrival of a spaceship carrying a humanoid alien who is immediately set upon by soldiers who panic when they think he’s about to zap them with a hand-held device that they believe is a weapon. A soldier panics and shoots the helmeted alien. What happens next sets the stage for the coming conflict. A ten-foot metallic robot named Gort (Gnut in the short story) appears and emits an energy beam that melts the weapons that have surrounded the spacecraft. Only a command from the visitor stops the robot from completing the destruction. Military officials arrive on the scene and take the wounded alien (Michael Rennie) to Walter Reed Hospital where he recovers quickly, almost miraculously.

It’s here that we learn that the alien’s name is Klaatu and that he’s an emissary from a group of planets that fears that Earth’s nuclear proliferation might threaten their peaceful coexistence. He demands to see all the world leaders to deliver an ultimatum. Of course, the government official states that such a meeting is impossible, claiming that Earth politics are “complicated.”

Meeting resistance, Klaatu escapes and decides to mingle with the people of Earth by taking on the identity of an earthling. It’s at this point that a number of religious overtones become evident. Scriptwriter Edmund H. North gives Klaatu the Earth name “Carpenter,” a reference to Jesus who is described as “the carpenter, the son of Mary” (Mark 6:3). Government officials pursue Klaatu as a possible threat to the nation (Luke 23:2), someone whose views might “upset the world” (Acts 17:6). He will be called on to perform a “sign” to demonstrate that his words are true. Then there is the obligatory death and resurrection motif and the acknowledgment that only “the Almighty Spirit” has ultimate power over life and death.

North acknowledged that the religious overtones were always present in the film but that he wanted them to be “subliminal.”

While the setting for the film takes place in America (the spaceship lands in Washington D.C. on “The Eclipse” between the White House and the Washington Monument), the message is for the world to hear. With the help of an Einstein-like physicist, played by Sam Jaffe, Klaatu is able to assemble the leaders of the world to hear an ultimatum. Here is his warning:

This universe grows smaller every day, and the threat of aggression by any group anywhere can no longer be tolerated. 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. Your ancestors knew this when they made laws to govern themselves, and hired policemen to enforce them. We of the other planets have along accepted this principle. . . . It is of no concern of ours how you run your planet, but if you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder. Your choice is simple. Join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration.

It’s at this point that we learn how these once warring planets solved their disputes. They created a race of robots like Gort that have autonomous policing power. “Their function,” Klaatu tells the world leaders, “is to patrol the planets and preserve the peace. At the first sign of violence they act automatically against the aggressor. And the penalty for provoking their action is too terrible to risk.” By this technological concession, they now “live in peace without arms and armies.” This speech has been described as “the finest soliloquy in science fiction film history.” But is it?

After watching The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), what do you think of the solution offered by the interplanetary alliance that has put its collective fate in the hands of a “race of robots”? If sin is the festering place for war, as the Bible makes clear (James 4:1–2), then there is no way ultimately to solve the problem by applying an external mechanical remedy. Putting machines in charge was the premise of the Terminator trilogy, and we saw how well that turned out. Detective Spooner’s comment about “robots building other robots” in I, Robot offers a similar chilling scenario. Totalitarianism by any other name is still totalitarianism, even when people vote for it (see 1 Sam. 8). Who’s ultimately in charge? Who gets to program the robots? “Who’s watching the watchmen?” What is the foundation of law? Who proposes the sanctions if the laws are broken? What constitutes “the preservation of peace”? If people speak out on what they believe are social evils (e.g., abortion and homosexuality), will these people be charged with disturbing the peace? In the short story on which the movie is based, we learn the robot is actually the master of Klaatu. If you can find a copy, read Robert Sheckley’s short story "Watchbird" to see how a society with robots as policemen might go very wrong and how we might apply both story lines to contemporary politics and the desire to manage our lives by an uncaring bureaucracy of experts.

This was article posted: December 15th, 2008

Endnotes:

[1] From ad copy describing an original 9-feet by 20-feet, 24-sheet movie poster of The Day the Earth Stood Still, the only one “known to exist and the only original that is likely to exist!” The Buy-It-Now price is $400,000.
[2] For a comparison of the short story and the film, see Leroy W. Dubeck, Suzanne E. Moshier, and Judith Boss, Fantastic Voyages: Learning Science Through Science Fiction Films (Woodbury, NY: American Institute of Physics, 1994), 249–253. “Farewell to the Master” can be read here.
[3] There’s a humorous scene in the film when two physicians discuss the age of Klaatu, who looks to be about 35 years old but is actually in his 70s. They are incredulous when they learn that the average lifespan of people from his planet is around 130. Their discussion takes place as they light up cigarettes.
[4] "At the behest of the [Motion Picture Association of America], [the] line was inserted into the film: When Helen asks Klaatu if Gort has unlimited power over life and death, Klaatu explains that he has only been revived temporarily by advanced medical science and states that the power of resurrection is ‘reserved to the Almighty Spirit.’ Of the elements in the film that he added to Klaatus character, Screenwriter Edmund North said: ‘It was my private little joke. I never discussed this angle with Blaustein or Wise because I didn't want it expressed. I had originally hoped that the Christ comparison would be subliminal.’ The fact that the question even came up in an interview is proof enough that such comparisons did not remain subliminal, but they are subtle enough that it is not immediately obvious to all viewers which elements of the film were intended to make Klaatu comparable to Christ” (source).
[5] Bobby Maddex, “The Gospel According to E.T.,” Rutherford Magazine (October 1996), 22.
[6] Peter Biskind, Seeing is Believing: How Hollywood Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Love the Fifties (New York: Owl Books, [1983] 2000), 152.
[7] Jeff Rovin, A Pictorial History of Science Fiction Films. Quoted in John Brosnan, "Future Tense: The Cinema of Science Fiction" (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1978), 84.
[8] Robert Sheckley, “Watchbird,” Untouched by Human Hands (London: Michael Joseph, 1955), 116–146. Watchbird was produced as a “Masters of Science Fiction” episode.

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