Intermediate Form

The Day the Earth Stood Still

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Chris and Donald Sensing have been having a debate over the proper interpretation of the ending of "The Day the Earth Stood Still". Chris wrote:

Klaatu never issued a demand that we stop warring with each other on earth. Klaatu explicitly said that his race didn't care at all. So long as we were just killing each other, they didn't care at all. . . .

and Donald Sensing replied:

Sorry, no. What Klaatu said was that the spacemen don't care how we govern ourselves. But if war broke out again, "the earth will be reduced to a cinder."

I just saw the movie on AMC the other day, and my memories of it were closer to the version given by Chris. To be sure, I did a quick search on google, and thanks to people with free time and little regard for copyright, I found the script. The important part of the final speech went:


I came here to give you the 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.

The way I read this, fighting among people on earth would be allowed, but fielding weapons systems that could hurt other planets would be enough to cause the robots to attack. My reading of the quote lead to an interpretation that was closer to Chris's than Reverend Sensing's.

I enjoyed watching "The Day the Earth Stood Still". Technically, I think the movie has held up very well, having a crispness that many modern movies lack. However, I was somewhat disappointed in the ending.

Klaatu came to earth to warn man against attacking other planets. My gut reaction was to ask why he bothered coming, as we won't have the capability of attacking an inhabited planet anytime in the near future. It would be like warning the Romans not to attack America. A warning that's irrelevant to the time at hand is somwhat pointless.

Now, when the movie was made, the jury may not have been out as to life on other planets in the solar system. At the very least, the space age had yet to start. But we now can be reasonably sure that Earth is the only planet in the solar system with non-trivial life on it, and we're nowhere near the level of technology needed to wage war near other stars. So, that aspect of the movie doesn't hold up too well.

Donald Sensing wrote:

Consider the pedagogical point of the movie: it could not possibly have been to declare, as Chris asserts, that humanity must not make war in outer space. Even Sputnik was still only wishful thinking back then. The Cold War's arms race was on earth. The message, "Don't fight in outer space" would have made no sense at all.

I did find the point of the speech to be somewhat lacking, although from what I understand, by the time the movie was made, launches to space (but not orbit) were a regular occurrence. As far as I could tell, Klaatu's point was twofold:

  • The UN is a good idea, and you should give it more power on Earth.
  • Even if you don't buy into that on Earth, the space UN will attack you if you attack another planet.

I don't particularly agree with Klaatu, this does seem to be what he's saying, and he explicitly disclaims any interest in "how your run your own planet".

- Tom | permalink | changelog | Last updated: 2003-08-06 20:56

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