This movie, starring Keanu Reeves in the lead role, is a remake of the 1951 sci-fi classic of the same name. (Before reading on, see box below for a mini-synopsis of that earlier film, adapted from Gary Bates’s Alien Intrusion: UFOs and the Evolution Connection.)
Despite the obvious similarities, there are profound differences to suit the times—and this is much more than just the use of today’s advanced special effects. Gone is much of the ‘Christ-analogy’ deliberately woven into the first one.
Klaatu, the alien come to save the earth from destruction, is never called ‘Carpenter’, and does not come back from the dead. He does, though, perform some techno-miracles of healing, including the resurrection of a just-dead policeman. (Never mind that this same friendly alien had first deliberately killed this cop.)
The original movie was based on a short story by Harry Bates called Farewell to the Master. Filmed in black and white, it depicts the arrival of a flying saucer which is greeted by the usual alarmist military response (typical for the Cold War era, anyway). Out steps an enormously powerful eight-foot-tall robot known as Gort. Then an alien ambassador named Klaatu appears requesting that the world’s political leaders gather because he has a sobering message to give them. Claiming to be a representative of an intergalactic federation that has been monitoring Earth’s activities for many years, his federation is concerned about the escalation of wars on the earth and our nuclear capability. (Lead actors Michael Rennie’s ‘regal’ and authoritative English accent adds to the aura of superiority.) His request is denied, and after being wounded by a bullet, he blends into the human world, befriending a young boy and his mother. Klaatu gives the mother instructions for dealing with the robot Gort, should anything happen to him: the words ‘Klaatu barada nikto!’ telling the robot to repair Klaatu and not to retaliate.
Klaatu decides that a demonstration of power is necessary to convince men of the seriousness of his mission. Warning Earth’s leaders first, Gort shuts down all sources of power on the earth, except for airplanes, hospitals and other essential services. Klaatu warns that if the earth does not disarm, Gort will be left behind as an intergalactic policeman, and at the first sign of trouble, it will destroy the earth. It seems that man, portrayed through the eyes of the more advanced aliens, was not even worthy of being allowed to self-destruct—it needed to be done by a superior race. The destructive machines of Klaatu’s world were designed for good, not war. The imagery reflects the idealism of American culture, which justified building atomic weapons for good—to overcome the evil of communism.
This movie was quite different for science fiction movies of its time because it portrayed aliens as human-like, although supposedly more advanced in technology. Up until this point, aliens had mainly been portrayed as evil, grotesque-looking creatures with the sole agenda of taking over the earth.
It is difficult for today’s generation to understand the fear that pervaded this era and the powerful emotions that this movie evoked. Nations were ready to attack or go to war at a moment’s notice, and this state of anxiety was used to brilliant effect, fixing the theme of the movie into peoples’ psyche. As mankind was developing more and more fearsome technologies, the movie warned us that self-annihilation was imminent, and that we were an ‘aggressive, less evolved species’ that needed help from our more evolved and benevolent neighbours in space. This was one of the first science fiction movies to promote spiritual themes, a trend that continues today. The movie even showed its lead character, Klaatu (who was actually saving mankind from itself), being resurrected from the dead by his robot Gort, as an allegory of Jesus Christ. When Klaatu goes out among the populace, he chooses the name ‘Carpenter’ (Jesus was a carpenter), and remarks to the woman that ‘the Almighty Spirit’ has the power of life and death, not Klaatu’s science. If the Almighty Spirit was the Father, and Klaatu the Son, then Gort is the Holy Spirit. The scriptwriter, North, said of these similarities:
Joke or not, the religious themes have remained part of the UFO psyche.
The robot Gort is no longer just an eight-foot machine, but a towering multi-storey colossus capable of taking on everything the entire US defence forces can throw at him. Gort is referred to as being there to protect Klaatu, as in the first version, but in practice seems exclusively concerned with protecting Gort. And there are no instructions for dealing with him, no spoken command to him eliciting a response. In fact, it’s hard to work out why the plot requires the robot this time, except perhaps to justify a link with the film’s predecessor.
That doesn’t mean that there are no religious themes—far from it. But in our increasingly evolutionized western world, the religious impulses evoked are no longer as Christian as they were decades earlier. The concept of mankind’s inherent ‘bad streak’ is still there. But the “sin’ of humanity is no longer the tendency for us to hurt and destroy each other. It’s—surprise, surprise—the bad things we are doing to the earth.
So when I wrote above that Klaatu had arrived to save the earth from destruction, that literally meant the earth—not its people. In fact, after he fails to arrange a meeting with all the earth’s leaders to be able to tell them to change their nasty environment-destroying ways, he decides that the only way to save the earth is by wiping out humanity. As before, he explains that he is acting at the behest of some council of galactic overrulers. Not that one gets the feeling that he bears us any real grudge—it’s sort of like a pragmatic decision that might be expected from an advanced being, one unlikely to harbour any sentimentality about whether humans continue to exist or not.
It happens to be in tune with the way some of the extreme-deep-green lobby have actually been applauding the idea that people should be destroyed to save the earth. See the articles Doomsday Glee and Melbourne atheist: the exterminator.
Sin is redefined, in short, to suit today’s hyperenvironmentalistic religion. Reeves even comes across as a younger, slimmer, version of Al Gore—right down to the dark suits and the wooden demeanour. (This woodenness is admittedly deliberate, to suit an alien inhabiting a biological body foreign to him. But having seen the actor in other movies, one couldn’t help thinking that he was a good choice for the part.)
As the humans continue their recalcitrant ways, Gort’s ‘body’ seems to dissolve into tiny locust-like creatures capable of a horrendous rate of multiplication. And with a ravenous habit of devouring entire metal tanks, trucks and buildings, a diet befitting their strange metallic sheen. Along the way, they consume people as well.
In the US, evolutionary thinking has made huge inroads into biblical truth. But even among the many unbelievers, most have been affected by the nation’s strongly Christian cultural heritage. They would be likely to resonate, if only subliminally, with biblical imagery such as these apocalyptic scenes of judgmental destruction. The plagues of Egypt came to mind—sort of like a combination of the locust hordes and the angel of death scenes from Cecil DeMille’s Ten Commandments movie (1956), with more than a touch of The Mummy.
Even Noah’s Ark gets a mention—the US government authorities in the movie work out that the strange glowing alien ‘spheres’ are, like latter-day arks, actually carrying samples of each species off the planet, taking them out of the way of the coming catastrophic judgment.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, humanity gets a reprieve towards the end of the film. So what ends up redeeming us? Mass environmental repentance? No—it’s an evolutionary revelation. Earlier in the plot, a kindly professor, played by John Cleese (in a serious role for once), points out to Klaatu that crisis is what causes a species to ‘evolve’. So having reached a ‘tipping point’ in our environmental ‘crisis’, we are now likely to evolve to a higher level of consciousness and morality (shades of Teilhard de Chardin, evolutionist extraordinaire, Jesuit priest, and the father of the New Age movement).
Much later, our alien overlord seems to suddenly realize that the professor was right—perhaps humans are not beyond the pale, and if left to themselves, are probably capable of evolving their way out of their evil actions towards the earth. Nothing else—no meeting of earth’s leaders, for example—is required, after all.
In an instant, the destructive ‘locusts’ all lose their life-force (whatever that was). And the ‘big daddy’ of all the glowing spheres, the one that originally contained Gort and Klaatu, leaves the earth. All those destructive plans are instantly shelved due to this sudden insight into mankind’s capacity to evolve. Only then does the earth ‘stand still’ for a moment (well, civilization, anyway), with electrical power, cars and all machinery unable to function.
But why? We are not told. The scene is decidedly odd at this late stage. It is almost as if inserted as an afterthought, to justify the title—totally unlike the powerful, central role played by the corresponding scene in the original. In that, Klaatu/Carpenter brought civilization to a standstill to demonstrate the alien civilization’s power if mankind did not repent. (Perhaps analogous to Jesus’ demonstrations of great power through miracles supervening the laws of physics)
And right after that, the audience (this reviewer at least) leaves the theatre, with a flat feeling that somehow the film’s ending was unconvincing, even weird—and disappointing—quite unlike the rather interesting way the film commenced and built up for a while.
For its day, given the far inferior special effects possible back then, the original probably deserved an 8 or 9 out of 10. This one, by contrast, would struggle to reach a 5.