Saturday, July 15, 2006

Baghdad Barada Nicto (The Day the Earth Stood Still revisited) -movie review

Last night, my wife and I stopped at a sub shop in Greenville, North Carolina.  We’re out here on vacation, but the first week has consisted of hanging out with our two older kids who live here.  The lady behind the counter at Ernie’s asked us with each order if we wanted the sandwich “All the way”, which apparently meant with lettuce, mayonnaise, peppers, onions, etc.  The basic meal there was an eight inch sub with an order of fries and a soda.  If you’re still hungry, the right-hand side of the Ernie’s counter is devoted to ice cream and milk shakes. At home, the most popular market is called “Whole Foods” which stands next to a vegetarian restaurant in the center of town.  A volleyball coach from Alabama came to our town once to look at a player and labeled it “Hippieville”.  We aren’t, but people tend to say things like that when they’re greeted by a sign proclaiming the place a “Nuclear Free Zone”.  I imagine this may have something to do with our kids moving to North Carolina.

At Ernie’s, there was a television on a high mount pointed towards the eight tables and it was turned to CNN.  Ironically, any time there’s a tv in a waiting area at home in Northern California, it seems to be tuned to Fox News.  I think it’s kind of a message from the traditional dairy and orchard types who once made up the town to those of us who moved there over the last twenty years and turned all the open space into wineries and the hardware and auto stores into spiritual bookstores and yoga studios.  For example, our town has a traditional feed store, it’s just that the place also sells Birkenstocks.  

CNN devoted the entire fifteen minutes of our sandwich wait to reports on Israel’s attempt to bomb Hezbollah out of Lebanon.  Every three minutes, instead of details about people dying or suffering, there’d either be an announcement that this new war in the Middle East was making the price of oil spiral upwards.  If you ask me, they should stop fooling with Ethanol and just make a car that runs on blood.  It’s clear that our ability to ensure an endlessly renewable supply of the latter is far more advanced than our capacity to develop alternative fuels.  

My wife and I then returned to our daughter’s apartment to consume our subs which were  good, but if they want to know where all the oil is going it’s in the eleven inch pepper steak sub done “All the Way” at Ernie’s.  Since nothing goes better with sub sandwiches than cable tv, we decided not to talk to each other and turned on the television instead though the kids didn’t want to watch either CNN or Fox News and we didn’t want to watch Parent Control or the Hills.

As it happened, TMC was showing the 1951 science fiction classic, The Day the Earth Stood Still.  I’d actually only seen it once when I was about ten years old and my cousins and I only really noticed the scenes with the jeeps careening around Dupont Circle with fifty caliber machine guns mounted on the back and that very cool robot, Gort with its built-in aimable microwave oven.  For about three weeks I tried to tell the vacuum cleaner and washing machine “Klaatu Barada Nicto”.  I have to confess though that as a kid I definitely didn’t “get” the movie in the way Robert Wise probably meant for more me to get it.

Watching  Michael Rennie-Patricia Neal in 2006, I was struck by how exotic the movie is.  For instance, it showed all these middle-class people living in a boarding house with Aunt Bea from the Andy Griffith Show as if that were perfectly normal.  No one in Aunt Bea’s boarding house is a recovering alcoholic, happens to be a serial killer, or wants to realize some sort of against all odds dream that the other boarders support in their own unique ways. Patricia Neal and her son live in two upstairs rooms and Klaatu stays right next door to them.  When Neal goes on a date with her boyfriend, she lets Klaatu whose known her all of a day look after the son while they’re gone.  Talk about your alien experiences ! Equally strange, I  lived for a year at Harvard and Columbia Road in D.C. which is roughly where Klaatu’s boarding house appeared to be (Adams Morgan changed a lot)

The message part of The Day the Earth Stood Still is that the earthlings of 1951 are paranoid, violent, and not especially good at math. I suspect the reason the movie achieved cult status in the sixties and seventies is that it came with a message that Earth’s nuclear arms race was crazy and primitive.  Into the early 1970’s, arms control during the Cold War meant both sides reducing their arsenals. If you look at old New Yorker cartoons, you’ll see that “Ban the Bomb” signs are a running backdrop throughout that period.  

In 2006, the movie has a different kind of resonance for me. Robert Wise’s movie is after all basically a story about weapons of mass destruction.  Klaatu travels the 250 million miles to earth with Gort to advertise his version of SDI.  Klaatu wants to tell the earthlings that their traveling from planet to planet with nuclear weapons is the galactic version of drunk driving.  In the meantime, Klaatu’s UFOing around with Gort who charming a robot as he/she is happens to be a weapon of mass destruction that can single-cybernetically-handedly raise the earth’s temperature far faster than Al Gort ever dreamed possible.  Klaatu gets to police the galaxy with his WMD because somehow they are more advanced and more responsible.  If some primitive rogue planet like earth gets WMD, then Klaatu lets them know that he will preemptively blow them up for the sake of keeping the galaxy safe.

As I was sitting in my stepdaughter’s living room telling myself that the U.S. of 2006 is really an even less advanced version of the earthlings of 1951, it suddenly struck me that Donald Rumsfeld must see himself as Klaatu.  As the lone nuclear superpower, the U.S. seems to have taken on the duty of roaming the earth in Klaatu-like fashion telling rogue nations and terrorist groups with WMD to give them up to us immediately or we will blow you up.  In the movie, the viewer is supposed to get the fact that Michael Rennie is indeed the product of a superior civilization and it’s therefore okay for him to have a Gort  but it’s not okay for anyone else.  At the moment though, I think the rest of the world seems to see the U.S. as some guy in a boarding house who’s putting the make on Patricia Neal by creepily befriending her son.  Of course, Klaatu didn’t torture anyone or rape a young girl then kill her family which really is creepy.

Should there be a remake, there are some issues.  In The Day the Earth Stood Still, Michael Rennie explains that no individual planet controls Gort.  It is the robots who implement the weapons of planetary destruction when necessary and without human interference.  Clearly Robert Wise did not anticipate either Bill Gates or Microsoft’s Operating System issues.  Could you imagine doing that today and having Gort disabled by adware or spam instead of a block of plexiglass?  Second, the movie actually appears to take scientists seriously as a source of wisdom and hope.  Sam Jaffe who wound up on Ben Casey a decade later does mention that the people of his day don’t listen to scientists, but if anyone did the remake now we’d know that scientific consensus is just one “opinion” when it comes to complex questions like the effect of human industrial activity on the earth’s temperature.  After all, the earth is billions of years old and it’s survived lots of calamities.  Of course, many of them were without human beings, but what’s the big deal and scientists are wrong some times? Also, in the original they simply lock Klaatu’s door and don’t monitor the room and they send two soldiers to guard the alien spaceship and Gort.  Okay, while I’m at it.  What kind of advanced aliens would decorate the whole interior of a spaceship with venetian blinds?  Today, they’d send in the guys from Queer Eye for the Straight Alien to do some sort of Extreme Spaceship Makeover before the guy gets resurrected and goes home.

The bigger issue to me is that Klaatu, for an advanced being, seems to have little appreciation for psychology.  He comes to a strange planet and says “Hey I’m here, bring me all your leaders who never get along anyway and I’m going to sit them down and talk some sense to them.” (kind of like an outer space version of Dr. Phil)

He’s very disappointed when they don’t jump to it, as if it’s not sort of a shock to have a flying saucer land in the middle of the Capitol Mall.  The whole movie, he has this pained “What’s the matter with these moron earthlings that they don’t understand freedom and democracy" look?  Why do they just want to blow each other up instead?”

After a five month trip there, Klaatu also decides to give the humans all of three days to get all this figured out or he’s going to blow them up.  Clearly, the humans in this movie were more than three days from building the Starship Enterprise.  I mean George Lucas was reading comic books in Modesto and dreaming about Fiat Bianchinis not Tye Fighters.  Finally, Klaatu thinks he can scare the humans by letting them know that he can make all their cars stop running and their electricity stop working as if he were Enron scamming California.  In the modern version he’d shut down their servers or turn off their televisions or maybe shut off all the credit card verification machines instead of making y2k-like threats.  

It’s weird how real life people playing at being Klaatu changed the way I responded to this movie.  When I was a kid, I never dreamt that I’d be rooting for Klaatu to just declare victory and go home. It's one thing to ruin the Constitution, the econonmy, and the Middle East, but wrecking my ability to just enjoy old childhood science fiction fantasies-that's going too far.


At 7/16/2006 08:14:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

mmmmm.....wonder what Gort's vertical was.

At 7/16/2006 10:19:00 AM, Blogger benny06 said...

Nothin' can be finer than being in Carolina. Hope you are having a good trip!

At 7/16/2006 10:38:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

thanks, now that we're here on the outer banks, yes. Greenville's not one of the great vacation destinations. Still waiting to run into John and Elizabeth down here though.:}

At 7/16/2006 08:26:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Chancelucky says, "If you ask me, they should stop fooling with Ethanol and just make a car that runs on blood. It’s clear that our ability to ensure an endlessly renewable supply of the latter is far more advanced than our capacity to develop alternative fuels."

Ah, cl, you've been taking your Vitamin Irony. However, the barrels of blood we've arranged to be shed ought not just sink anonymously into the sand. Arnold and Darth Dick would surely drive the Model Bloods prototypes with only slight pink froth on their lips.

Perhaps we could charge a billion dollars each for these elite Model Bloods, the proceeds to go to offset the tax-cuts-to-the-one-percent deficit. (You see, then we could just strategically appeal to their greed rather than to their hearts of which they have none.)

At 7/17/2006 12:51:00 AM, Blogger inkyhack said...

Still a great movie. It is interesting how even back then the idea of taking science seriously was scoffed at. Can we say evolution?

On another note, I find this whole Israel bombing Lebanon back to the stone-age thing just a bit disturbing. It not only bothers me that they are so blatant about killing innocent people in Lebanon as an act of revenge, but even more disturbing that everyone is just standing by, watching and not really giving a damn.

At 7/17/2006 06:57:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Mr. Pogblog,
they do have a blood mobile in my town, but I think it's for people who want to donate blood to other people. It is interesting though. When the war started, many speculated that it was about oil. If so, the price of gas has more or less doubled since.

I notice the wire service articles don't even bother to say why or question why Israel started bombing Lebanon. It's just treated as part of "Israel's right to defend itself"which makes me wonder, what's Lebanon's right to defend itself?
I've been meaning to look over Project for a New American Century's famous position papers and see how they line up now.


Post a Comment

<< Home