Apocalypticism in Film Essay 2: The Cold War, Christianity, and Apocalypse in The Day the Earth Stood Still

Once again, to avoid some school assignments going to waste, I will publish my apocalypticism in film 8-page essay for interest, writing sampling, or other reasons.

This is an open-ended analytical essay spanning 8 pages in response to The Day the Earth Stood Still, a thought-provoking, influential, and philosophical black-and-white science-fiction piece with Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal, and Hugh Marlowe. As a disclaimer, I do not claim to be an expert in the subjects described. Here is the first essay.

Dickson He
Professor Sheila Winborne
Apocalypticism in Film, Section 2
15 October 2014
Fear and Loathing in The Day the Earth Stood Still: Parallels to the Cold War, Christianity, and Apocalypse
Waves of paranoia and hysteria have swept throughout history. For example, recurring witch hunts like those in Salem, MA, and diseases like swine flu and SARS have entered public knowledge and created real consequences to varying degrees of severity. Such diverse instances of widespread fear tap into the primal herd instinct and drive for survival as detailed in the aptly-titled Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds by Charles Mackay. As this exposé was first published in 1841, it shows elements of a fixed, underlying human psychology that hasn’t died with modernity. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) strongly demonstrates this paranoia as the Cold War began its lengthy shadow. With two primary threats of widespread apocalypse from Earth-developed atomic power and from destructive alien containment, people react with suspicion and panic. The protagonist, Klaatu, plays an important role as the messenger or potential agent of destruction with uncanny references to Jesus Christ. Thus, in the start of the Cold War when pretenses ran high, Klaatu acts a savior from interplanetary destruction and helps allay total apocalypses by Gort or by humans toward themselves.
Klaatu’s arrival is already greeted with suspicion and violence by the public. When he lands with Gort in a flying saucer, dramatic silence underscores the bewilderment of the people and military. Eventually, as Klaatu presents what is intended as a gift, a nervous soldier shoots him despite Klaatu stating that he comes in peace (The Day the Earth Stood Still). This microcosm exemplifies the human predilection for violence and high xenophobic anxiety of the time. It also reflects the tensions of the Cold War where certain outsiders are untrusted, requiring military action and deployment. Ironically, the gift device could have proved incredibly useful for people like the President and Professor Bernhardt for its capability to “study life on the other planets” (The Day the Earth Stood Still), but its breaking symbolizes the mutually disadvantageous and irrevocable actions that can result from trivial offenses. Such double-edged behavior includes the specter of mutually-assured destruction with atomic weapons, which Klaatu tries to prevent.
The media helps perpetuate information and fear in the story. In an age without instantaneous internet, the main channels of newspapers, radio, and television capture changes in the visitor’s situation. They also create both speculation and sensationalism. For example, Mrs. Barley vocally disapproves of the alien when ironically sitting with Klaatu at the breakfast table. Helen Benson, however, voices an opposite, more sympathetic view in which the alien comes non-violently. Her brighter view resonates and reappears later in the story when Mr. Carpenter shares his intentions to Helen in the elevator. Since the beginning of the story, the press disperses occasionally distorted information. Real broadcast journalists of the time narrate events that first conspired in President’s Park. Newspapers sell quickly to an enraptured audience and, with sensationalistic headlines, border on yellow journalism. It is no coincidence that the household tunes into television news that reports that the alien escaped when Mr. Carpenter arrives at the boarding house.
The jittery and uncertain media strongly parallels the communist Red Scare at the time of the movie’s production. With opposing or unacceptable government, economic, and ideological views, the remaining American and Soviet superpowers held irreconcilable differences that did not endear them to each other. Mr. Harley, the President’s secretary, illustrates the icy international relations of the time by telling Klaatu that it is nearly impossible to unite the representatives or heads of state.
The panic and hysteria caused by Klaatu’s arrival also mirrors the communist paranoia and xenophobia that eventually gave rise to McCarthyism. Defined as “the practice of making accusations of disloyalty, esp. of pro-Communist activity, in many instances unsupported by proof or based on slight, doubtful, or irrelevant evidence” (“McCarthyism”) probably for political gain, one character strongly represents this definition. Tom Stevens, Helen’s boyfriend, eventually pieces that Mr. Carpenter is the alien after appraising a diamond that is “unlike anything on Earth” (The Day the Earth Stood Still). While Helen tries to stop him from disclosing this information, Tom sets off a chain of events that eventually leads to Klaatu’s death. Tom explicitly states that he wants power, opportunities, and heroism when trying to connect to the general on the phone, which alienates Helen and compares to Senator Joseph McCarthy, who some believed tried to boost his platform through aggressive tactics that exaggerated danger.
The Day the Earth Stood Still can also be seen as an allegory to the fear and persecution spread by McCarthyism in which Klaatu is the victim of assaults and near-baseless information about his malevolence. A line spoken by Klaatu alludes to and solidifies this. While at President’s Park in a crowd circling the spacecraft, a fear mongering news reporter interviews members of the audience. This occurs after news that the alien escaped, which creates concern. Klaatu, who is with Bobby Benson, answers the reporter’s question about fear with a line that is both prescient and unusual for its time: ”I am fearful when I see people substituting fear for reason” (The Day the Earth Stood Still). Of course, this level-headed response does not excite the reporter as he abruptly goes to a different audience member for more emotional answers fitting with the sensationalism that he tries to capture and portray. Some critics from the era like Arthur Miller, who wrote The Crucible about the Salem witch hunts as an allegory to the communist witch hunts, thought similarly to Klaatu. Due to the accusatory and inflammatory environment, people readily believed and supported sometimes misbegotten purges of a perceived strong evil.
            Some characters are less fearful of the alien visitor or even receptive to him in opposition to the themes of fear and loathing. As mentioned previously, Helen believes that the alien does not possess evil intentions as others popularly believe. After Mr. Carpenter’s revelation in the elevator, she supports his cause and later proves instrumental by having Gort retrieve and revive Klaatu with the iconic phrase, “Klaatu barada nikto” (The Day the Earth Stood Still). Helen can be seen as a heroine due to her selflessness and bravery against popular opinion that the alien should be arrested. She also risks her life by associating with such a high-profile fugitive as she believes that Klaatu’s message is of utmost worldwide importance.
Another character, Professor Jacob Bernhardt, harbors less fear towards the alien. While he initially responds with surprise and awe upon discovering that Mr. Carpenter is the extraterrestrial visitor, the professor does not report him to authorities. In fact, Professor Bernhardt expresses curiosity and thankfulness for Klaatu’s assistance with his problem on the blackboard. Like Helen, the professor proves instrumental in his role by gathering the world’s scientists for Klaatu’s message. Professor Bernhardt represents scientific knowledge and reason, which contrasts with much of the frantic and irrationally fearful public. With his private knowledge of Klaatu, he remains calm and analytical when he asks his distraught assistant during the electric blackout, “Does this frighten you? Does this make you insecure?” (The Day the Earth Stood Still) This relates back to the primal and automatic fear and survival response that grips the majority of the public.
With strong Cold War references through the fronts of the inflammatory media, the persecutory government, and the anxious public, The Day the Earth Stood Still can also be seen as an allegory to the story of Jesus Christ. Fitting with Christianity’s influence on America, “Contemplation of the future has historically been intertwined with religion, particularly the so-called Abrahamic religions… (Boyer 61),” which influence the film. Klaatu arrives unexpectedly as an external force to preach the importance of non-violence. Besides his seemingly miraculous and rapid healing that confounds doctors treating his gunshot wound, Klaatu also demonstrates a testament to his supernatural abilities. At the request of Professor Bernhardt, Klaatu stops electricity in non-injurious situations around the world, which the professor commends as an “ingenious” way to prove that Klaatu is actually the alien (The Day the Earth Stood Still).  This phenomenon also leads to an escalation in action through the government witch hunt in which Klaatu enlists Helen to help him.
Further elements associate the story of Christ with Klaatu’s story. As a glaring tipoff, Klaatu takes a suit belong to M. Carpenter, and he assumes the identity of Mr. Carpenter. Jesus practiced carpentry outside of his holy duties. In addition to representing McCarthyism, Tom Stevens can also be seen as representative of apostle Judas Iscariot. Both Tom and Judas betray Klaatu and Jesus, respectively, by revealing the fugitives’ identity to the authorities. With the killing of the Christ character, a chain of events leads to resurrection even though Klaatu is pronounced dead. This proves pivotal for Klaatu delivering his message and returning to his planet, but his life is not infinite as such continuity is only granted to “the Almighty Spirit” (The Day the Earth Stood Still).
While this comparison to Christ is by no means complete especially for the religiously minded, it leads to a discussion of apocalyptic scenarios that Klaatu tries to prevent.
The first of two primary fronts of widespread apocalypse is through Earth-developed nuclear power. With the atomic bomb droppings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki near the conclusion of World War II, the war-ravaged world became perceptive to the idea of massive destruction through science’s advancement. The arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union became a pivotal part of the Cold War in which the war turning hot could prove devastating enough to end humanity. Moral questions and questions of atomic weapons ownership abound as Klaatu arrives in an attempt to unite the world and defuse hostile tensions. As a result of stockpiling, “...humankind entered a period of cautiously feeling its way in international relations, gradually working out the conception of mutual deterrence, according to which the nuclear powers would prevent each other from making war by the threat of overwhelmingly destructive retaliation" (Kaufman 16). While ostensibly serving his rational self-interest, Klaatu states that he did not care about the petty squabbles engrossing humans until the development of a “rudimentary form of atomic power” (The Day the Earth Stood Still). He seeks to safeguard the planetary peace against spillover from Earth, and this also prevents Earth from reducing itself to cinders.
The second primary agent of apocalypse is through robots like Gort, which are fictional and movie-specific. Gort towers over human height and is constructed extremely durably. He possesses several destructive and annulling powers like the ability to evaporate weapons, an encasing chemical stronger than steel, and human guards. Thus, he is much more omnipotent than the humans and even Klaatu, which helps Gort’s role as a strong-arm police sentry. Through these overwhelming physical powers, he is said to be capable of destroying Earth especially upon Klaatu’s death. Helen stops Gort’s rampage with the words, “Klaatu barada nikto,” and Gort retrieves Klaatu to revive and speak to the international assembly of scientists.
Power manifests in different forms throughout the film. In the traditional sociological view, the government possesses military power and leads the manhunt for Klaatu. This supposedly serves the public interest in a time when politics largely distrusts outsiders with ambivalent or disagreeing views. Furthermore, governments own the stockpile of atomic weapons that threatens Earth and outside planets. Gort counteracts this near-monopoly of violent and oppressive power upon his arrival. Despite Gort spending most of his time immobile, his reactions prove powerful and obliterating. In this threatening but dormant state of war, Fukuyuma defines realism as “a theory that maintains that insecurity, aggression, and war are permanent possibilities in the international state system, and that this condition is a human condition…” (254). When tensions walked on a tightrope and heightened fear could trigger a nuclear holocaust, Klaatu expresses cynicism at this system and the human penchant for violence, telling the secretary Mr. Harley, “Violent action - that seems to be the only thing you people understand” (The Day the Earth Stood Still).
The blockbuster 1996 film Independence Day references The Day the Earth Stood Still as a classic of science fiction. Both films share alien visitors, but, while Klaatu states that he comes in peace, the aliens in The Day the Earth Stood Still arrive as hostile invaders. Both planet Earths face potential apocalypse by an external alien force, and both films propose international unity as a defense against annihilation. The president in Independence Day mentions this in an uplifting speech: “We can't be consumed by our petty differences anymore. We will be united in our common interests...” (Independence Day). This thread for unity stands as a moral of Klaatu’s message.
            Apocalypse also refers to a revelation or unveiling, and the plot builds up to Klaatu’s deliverance of his important message. First, there is an unveiling when Tom Stevens reveals Mr. Carpenter’s identity to the officials. This revealing complicates Klaatu’s plan when he is killed, but he returns to speak of the apocalyptic consequences of continued violence. A promotional poster from 1951 dramatizes this: “From out of space… A warning and an ultimatum!” (Day the Earth Stood Still 1951) Klaatu warns, “There must be security for all, or no one is secure.” Furthermore, he reveals Gort’s role as part of a nearly omnipotent police force that keeps the galactic world in check. "In matters of aggression, we have given complete power to them." "The result is, we live in peace without harm or armies..." (The Day the Earth Stood Still). This near-utopian ideal eludes the twentieth century world but proves as an idyllic example of less strained relations.
            In the grips of the Cold War when apocalyptic threats played like an international chess game, the fictional Earth needs Klaatu as a savior to speak against apocalypse. Although he arrives heavily maligned, Klaatu helps pacify tensions on Earth. Since nuclear threats still exist today, this film proves surprisingly enduring and relevant as a testament to nonviolence.

Works Cited
Benshoff, Harry M., and Sean Griffin. "The Structure and History of Hollywood Filmmaking." America on Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality at the Movies. 2nd ed. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. 21-44. Print.
Boyer, Paul. "The Foreordained Future: Apocalyptic Thought in the Abrahamic Religions." The Hedgehog Review 10.1 (2008): 60-75. Print.
"Day the Earth Stood Still 1951." Wikimedia. N.p., 1951. Web. 14 Oct. 2014. <http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/3/3f/Day_the_Earth_Stood_Still_1951.jpg>.
Fukuyama, Francis. "The Power of the Powerless." The End of History and the Last Man. New York: The Free Press, 1992. 254-265. Print.
Independence Day. Dir. Roland Emmerich. Perf. Will Smith, Bill Pullman, Jeff Goldblum. Fox, 1996. DVD.
Kaufman, Gordon. "Towards the Reconception of Theology." Theology for a Nuclear Age. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985. 16-29. Print.
"McCarthyism." McCarthyism: Meaning and Definitions. Random House Unabridged Dictionaries, 1997. Web. 14 Oct. 2014. <http://dictionary.infoplease.com/mccarthyism>.
The Day the Earth Stood Still. Dir. Robert Wise. Perf. Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal, Hugh Marlowe. 20th Century Fox, 1951. DVD.