“Farewell to the Master” depicted mankind’s first real engagement with other-worldly life. In particular, a spherical or “ovoid” alien vessel materialized in Washington D.C. on September 16th of some future year, arriving in “the blink of an eye.”
Aboard this highly-advanced craft, which showed “not the slightest break or crack” in its “perfect smoothness” were two “time-space travelers.” One was a humanoid named Klaatu, described in prose as a “benign God” and possessing “great wisdom.” Klaatu was accompanied by an imposing, green-hued robot called Gnut.
Considering this ending, Bates’ tale concerned our human-centric assumptions; our arrogant belief that the human shape of life would — even on other planets — be blessed with a superiority over other forms. But clearly, on Gnut’s world, robotic (or what we term artificial) life had flourished, rising above familiar biological forms like man. So “Farewell to the Master” served, perhaps, as an object lesson that mankind was not the center of the universe.
On another level, the tale might have been interpreted by some — especially on the eve of the most destructive, technological war in all of human history up to that time — as a warning not to permit our modern machinery to overwhelm and dominate us.
If you are interested in knowing more about “Farewell to the Master,” Bates’ original story is available online here, for your perusal (and free too, I might add).
Join us and Live in Peace, or Pursue Your Present Course and Face Obliteration: The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
In 1951, director Robert Wise brought to the silver screen a big-budget (for the time) adaptation of “Farewell to the Master” by Edmund H. North, titled The Day The Earth Stood Still.
In The Day The Earth Stood Still, the humanoid Klaatu (Michael Rennie) — now the master — and his robot servant, re-named Gort, land in Washington D.C. in a flying saucer. They are met by the U.S. military. Klaatu is again shot and injured, this time by a twitchy American soldier. He recovers, and asks to meet with world leaders. Instead, American authorities hold him in custody, and Gort escapes.
Under the alias “Mr. Carpenter,” Klaatu soon intermingles with the citizens of Earth. He befriends lovely Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) and her son, Bobby Benson (Billy Gray). He talks to a leading Earth scientist (Sam Jaffe), visits Arlington National Cemetery and the Lincoln Monument, and is ultimately sold-out by Helen’s boyfriend, Tom Stephens (Hugh Marlowe). When Klaatu is shot dead by U.S. authorities, the hulking robot Gort resurrects him and permits the visitor to deliver a final, staggering message to the people of Earth. In part, it goes like this:
“The 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.
Now, 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 long accepted this principle. We have an organization for the mutual protection of all planets and for the complete elimination of aggression. The test of any such higher authority is, of course, the police force that supports it. For our policemen, we created a race of robots. Their function is to patrol the planets in spaceships like this one and preserve the peace. In matters of aggression, we have given them absolute power over us. This power cannot be revoked. At the first sign of violence, they act automatically against the aggressor. The penalty for provoking their action is too terrible to risk.
The result is, we live in peace, without arms or armies, secure in the knowledge that we are free from aggression and war. Free to pursue more… profitable enterprises. Now, we do not pretend to have achieved perfection, but we do have a system, and it works. I came here to give you these facts. It is no concern of ours how you run your own planet, but if you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder.”
In a time of war, when the “Red Scare” (fear of Communism) was in full swing, it was downright shocking for an American studio film to suggest that America and the world, literally, disarm. Though there’s still the possibility of capitalism encoded in Klaatu’s speech (he mentions the pursuit of “profitable enterprises,” specifically), this lecture calls for not just an end to war here on Earth, but an end to gun ownership all together. I can’t imagine that message playing particularly well in the American south. In 1951 or now.
Even Klaatu’s alias on Earth — “Mr. Carpenter” — suggests Jesus of Nazareth’s one-time occupation. And, further inclined to analyze the film’s details, one even might suggest that Tom Stephens is Klaatu’s “Judas,” betraying the alien for the promise of riches (alien jewels, in particular). Authors Kenneth Von Gunden and Stuart H. Stock excavated this Christ metaphor in detail in their text, The Twenty All-Time Greatest Science Fiction Films (General Publishing Company, Lt., Canada, 1982), noting that screenwriter North “admitted” that the parallels “were intentional.”(page 44).
Today, there’s little doubt that The Day The Earth Stood Still powerful message of peace and brotherhood would be greeted by some audiences as a socialist treatise, one that impedes personal liberty, and threatens the Second Amendment. On the other hand, look where our continued violence has brought us in 2010. Six decades after The Day The Earth Stood Still, the world is still at war, and mankind is still divided. No doubt this is why the film is still revered today. Humanity seems on stuck on a dark path unless there is an intervention, divine or alien, in our future.
Your Problem is Not Technology. Your Problem is You: The Day The Earth Stood Still (2008).
If the Robert Wise Day The Earth Stood Still posited a kindly, mankind-loving Jesus-styled alien in the person hood of Michael Rennie’s Klaatu, then the remake directed by Scott Derrickson in 2008 lays down God’s law, Old Testament-style. This movie returns to “Farewell to the Master’s” vision of the alien craft as a featureless, smooth ovoid, but sticks to the Klaatu-Gort relationship of the 1951 film.
Klaatu himself, however, has changed dramatically from his previous incarnation. Here (as played by Keanu Reeves), he is a wrathful God who adopts human form (as God often adopted human form in the Old Testament stories).
The first thing Klaatu does, however, is preserve all the other animal species of the planet in small spheres explicitly termed “arks” by the screenplay. This development also harks back to the Old Testament, Book of Genesis tale of Noah and the Great Flood. The Earth is to be destroyed because of “man’s wickedness.”
Finally, when Klaatu experiences a change of heart and decides to save mankind, this God-figure visits the last Plague of the Book of Exodus upon our planet: “The Plague of Darkness.” Specifically, Klaatu’s ship emits an electro-magnetic pulse that destroys all technology on Earth, plunging the species both metaphorically and literally into “night.” In the Old Testament, the darkness lasted but three days. On Earth, our technological”night” is to be the new normal, with no end. Ever.
In Wise’s atom-age film, the Jesus-like Klaatu issued Earth the verbal warning I reproduced above, but he also revealed his “miraculous” powers. For a half-hour, he interrupted all electrical power on Earth before restoring it (hence the title of the film).
By contrast, in the 2008 version, Klaatu adopts no such half-measures. He punishes us for our mistreatment of the planet and each other, thus acting as a wrathful judge, and cold, emotionless lawgiver. No warnings this time.
My appreciation of the 2008 remake may not sit well with some — especially with fans of the original film, I suppose — but in all the right ways, this Day The Earth Stood Still speaks to us with the same urgency that Wise’s film spoke to the men and women of the early atomic age. Some viewers complained of the remake that it was too personal, too intimate; that Klaatu should have — in the tradition of the original film — issued a speech and a warning to the world. But in keeping with the Old Testament contextualization of this story, it’s clear that God has no responsibility to okay his actions with us. He moves in mysterious ways, and owes us no explanations. And as I stated before, the time for warnings and brief demonstrations is long past.
In 1940, 1951 and 2008, the story of The Day The Earth Stood Still has carried a didactic purpose. The written words of Bates alerted us to the reality that technological warfare could overwhelm us and make us slaves to the machine. The 1950s movie from the great Robert Wise obsessed about our drift towards self-annihilation. And in 2008, the classic tale was angrily, vehemently re-parsed to comment on our mistreatment of the planet.
In all versions, however there exists hope. The steadfast belief that, as Helen Benson puts it — “we can change” before it is too late.
We should all hope she’s right.