The Day The Earth Stood Still: explained

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The Day The Earth Stood Still (2008) blends science fiction with a real-life warning. Can we survive if we don’t look after the Earth – and each other?

What is The Day The Earth Stood Still about?

Astrobiologist Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly) is among a group of scientists summoned to a top secret government facility. There, they learn an unidentified object is hurtling towards Earth, threatening destruction in just over an hour’s time.

But rather than obliterating Manhattan – and the planet – the sphere slows and lands in Central Park. When its alien pilot emerges, a trigger-happy soldier shoots him before they can find out why he’s come to Earth.

As they work to save his life, the scientists discover the alien looks human, and even speaks English. Klaatu (Keanu Reeves) asks to deliver a message to a group of world leaders. Secretary of Defence Regina Jackson (Kathy Bates) refuses, and plans instead to move him to a secure lab for ‘questioning’.

Benson helps Klaatu escape. Later, she learns he has come to save the Earth. Other orbs land on Earth, each designed to gather animal species for safe-keeping. Humans, however, will be destroyed – unless Helen and her son Jacob (Jaden Smith), can change his mind.

The end of the world as we know it (again)

You’ll often see movie twins released for cinema at the same time. According to fan and insider theories, this may be because writers pitch their stories to rival studios at the same time. Sometimes this results in films being developed in tandem (even when one studio rejects the original script).

This explains Armageddon and Deep Impact hitting the big screen in close proximity. Both were released in 1998. Both examine the threat to Earth from extinction-level asteroid strikes.

It may also explain similarities between The Day The Earth Stood Still (2008) and Knowing (2009). We unpack Knowing in detail here but, in brief, both feature aliens selectively saving some species before the Earth is destroyed.

In this case, Knowing was late to the game. The Day The Earth Stood Still was first released in 1951. Despite a few shifts, the core message of the movie is the same in the 2008 remake. Humans must change their violent ways and work for peace if we’re to survive.

As movie twins, Knowing and The Day The Earth Stood Still share key themes. Science Vs religion. Death and grief. And whether humans can be saved from themselves. Both films answer this latter question with a resounding ‘no’, and send in the aliens to resolve the issue.

What is the film’s message?

The film’s main message is identical with Klaatu’s. The human race is prone to violence and destruction, and the Earth is paying the price.

The 1951 movie ends with a question: can humans change their ways before it’s too late? In the remake, the question has already been answered for us by distant alien beings. Humans are judged to be helplessly, insatiably destructive – and not worth saving.

The film shows this in a number of ways:

  • At their first encounter, a soldier shoots Klaatu even before knowing why he’s come to Earth.
  • Klaatu warns that the automaton “activates in the presence of violence”. Yet the army keeps trying to destroy it. Ultimately, their attempt to ‘fry it’ unleashes the plague it’s carrying.
  • Humans have little respect for life. The engineer who gets trapped with the automaton in the drill room is left to die while his colleagues watch on.
  • The military’s response to the swarm is to fire missiles into it, only to discover that each strike makes it larger. Despite this, the US president’s final order is to destroy the orb in Central Park. We seem unable to learn from even recent history.

Unlike the original film, humans aren’t offered some distant threat to bring about change. Instead, we’re brought to the brink of destruction.

This is the film’s more philosophical angle. Professor Barnhardt (John Cleese) surmises:

“It’s only on the brink that people find the will to change. Only at the precipice do we evolve.”

Is the film still relevant today?

Man’s ability to change is an interesting question. In the movie, we’re brought to the brink of destruction. Yet even this doesn’t save us. Technically, it’s Klaatu who changes at the precipice.

He sees the love humans are capable of, and this convinces him to stop the annihilation. There’s no real evidence that humans change of their own volition.

Compare this with the world struggling for real to cope with and adapt to the Coronavirus pandemic and environmental catastrophe. We can and do reach the precipice repeatedly, and yet we don’t change.

While we search for a collective cure to the virus, for instance, many European nations are unwilling to save the lives of individuals claiming asylum – often being more willing to let them die.

Whatever your views on this, the film is remarkably insightful on human motivations and actions. It also correctly predicts that the precipice is no guarantee of change.

The ending explained

In the 1951 movie, Klaatu disables all electricity – and the world stands still – for 30 minutes. The remake has a different take on this. Once Klaatu leaves, all technology comes to a stop. Factories fall silent. Ships stop running. And all over the world, the lights go out.

This idea that technology in human hands is uncontainable and destructive isn’t a new one. Nature and tradition Vs technology has long been a theme in literature (see Hard Times, 1854).

It’s even an underlying theme in 1982 film, Poltergeist. Here an unscrupulous land developer builds a modern housing estate over ancient burial grounds. The evil spirits this unleashes act through television sets. Both are symbols of new technology and rampant consumerism destroying tradition and peace.

In The Day The Earth Stood Still, this return to pre-industrial society – perhaps to more innocent times – is likewise a second chance.

Is Klaatu meant to be Christ?

Klaatu comes to Earth with a message for mankind. He wants to bring peace, but threatens destruction of those who won’t change their ways. Ultimately, he sacrifices himself to save the human race. So yes, he’s absolutely a Christ-like figure.

This is common to the 1951 movie, too. In it, Klaatu dies and is resurrected by the automaton – a controversial move at the time.

The remake doesn’t go this far, yet religious symbolism still looms large. Klaatu isn’t resurrected, but he does bring a cop back to life. There’s the obvious ‘repent – the end is nigh’ message (common also to Knowing). The film even ends with a mother and child standing together bathed in light like the Virgin and Christ in a Renaissance painting.

Why is the automaton shaped like a man?

The automaton in the 2008 remake doesn’t have a name. In the 1951 film, it’s Gort. Either way, what’s most remarkable is that it’s the shape of a gigantic man. Why is this?

Well, one way of reading the symbolism is that it represents mankind as an ‘almost man’. In other words, figures, people and things that look like men – but aren’t quite.

The automaton is the most obvious example. He’s an alien being that looks like a man, yet isn’t human. This is exactly the case with Klaatu as well.

Helen’s grieving son Jacob is another example. As a young boy he looks like a man … but isn’t quite. The film underlines this in his first scene, with the close-up of the razor. He too stands on a precipice, between childhood and adulthood.

Later, when Jacob breaks down at the cemetery, Helen comforts him. “I see him in you,” she says, referring to Jacob’s dead father. So again, Jacob looks like but isn’t quite a man (here a specific man – his father).

Regina Jackson is a woman acting in a man’s capacity. “Until this situation has some kind of resolve, I am the eyes and ears of the presidency,” she says. Ultimately, when the president orders the final strike, it’s relayed through Jackson.

The film repeats this motif of the ‘almost man’ in several places. But in another way, it’s quite fitting that the automaton is man-shaped.

He represents the darker aspects within the human race. He looks human, but carries destruction within him. And like him, perhaps we are the virus that threatens to destroy the Earth.

The Day The Earth Stood Still (2008), directed by Scott Derrickson

Other films like The Day the Earth Stood Still
  • Knowing (destruction of the planet)
  • WarGames (can humans be trusted with technology?)
  • Deep Impact (human responses to the end of the world)

Picture credit: Johannes Plenio