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The Day the Earth Stood Still (Robert Wise, 1951) - post-viewing prompts

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  • The Day the Earth Stood Still (Robert Wise, 1951) - post-viewing prompts

    1. At the end of The Day the Earth Stood Still, Klaatu the alien gives a speech in which he declares that Earthlings, like the inhabitants of neighboring planets with a capacity to interact with those neighbors, must be subjected to an external, irrevocable power that enforces a strict limit on all aggression. Would the threat of this power really constitute no limitation upon the legitimate freedom of Earth’s population? Does it make sense that people could, in effect, be coerced into being free?

    2. (Perhaps just a variation upon prompt #1) Klaatu’s speech concludes with the claim that “Your choice is simple: Join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration.” Is this really a “choice”? Should Helen have smiled back at Klaatu as he left having just offered Earthlings this “choice”?

    3. The mass media—television, radio, and newspapers—are presented in the film as stoking the fears ordinary citizens even while cautioning them to remain calm. How might this work to help justify and maintain the role of official power in human society? Does similar media manipulation at present serve perhaps a similar function?

    4. During Klaatu’s first tour of Washington D.C., they visit both Arlington National Cemetery—where Bobby’s father, killed in WWII, is buried—and The Lincoln Memorial. At the former, Klaatu explains that where he is from they have no wars (which Bobby thinks is “a good idea”). At the latter, Klaatu expresses admiration for Lincoln based upon a portion of his “Gettysburg Address” which justifies the famed battle of the American Civil War as a necessary means to ensuring the survival of democracy. Is there any way to reconcile Klaatu’s seemingly contradictory attitudes toward war, aggression, violence, etc.? On the one hand he presents himself as devoted to its elimination. On the other hand, he clearly approves of it as a means. Is violence, war, aggression, or at least the credible threat of such things, the way to overcome undeniable factors in human history?

    5. Throughout the film, Klaatu maintains a strict opposition between emotions (especially misplaced fear) and reason, regarding the first as a source of childishness and stupidity and the latter the basis for proper behavior. Yet at the end, he seems to advance the idea that only fear of a credible threat of violence will enable people to act upon reason. It must be noted that Prof. Barnhardt (the Einstein-like scientist in the film) seems to hold similar ideas, immediately agreeing that even his fellow scientists will only be properly impressed by spectacular power, and expressing approval that his housekeeper is afraid. Is the only hope for reason to back it with fear? Is that really even reliance upon reason?

    6. Prof. Barnhardt presents the international scientific community as more enlightened and reasonable than the world’s political leaders and convinces Klaatu that a meeting of prominent scientists should be the audience for his important message. However, it is technological advances—rockets and nuclear weapons (both provided by scientists for use by governments especially in war)—that brought the Earth to the attention of its neighbors in the first place. Further, Prof. Barnhardt reveals that he had sought permission from the army to hold the meeting of scientists and agrees to call it off when the army tells him to. Is this subordination of scientists and scientific practice to political (even military) authority mirrored in the real world? Does it qualify the role science might play in uniting the world’s population and perhaps even make it the source of violence and aggression?

    7. Klaatu, during his final speech, suggests that it is his own people’s acceptance of irrevocable external authority that has freed them up for “more profitable enterprises”. What does he mean by this? Does capitalism, and its presumed benefits, result from the proper application of absolute authority, or might it actually be the source of the aggression that such authority is meant to keep in check? What is the film’s attitude toward this relation? Note the jewelry store owner’s attempts to buy the diamonds from Tom even during Klaatu’s spectacular demonstration or power and Tom’s expressions of self-interest and indifference to “the rest of the world” in turning Klaatu in to the authorities.

    8. Given that (in reality) there are no aliens ready to destroy the earth if humans continue to act with aggression, does the film ultimately support or criticize earthly authority that gives organized expression to that aggression? That is to say, if the film is arguing that a threat of spectacular violence is needed to create peace between people, who is meant to issue such a threat, presuming there are no extra-planetary neighbors around with menacing robots to do the job? Is the film justifying the idea that an aggressive earthly power, the United States perhaps, is needed to maintain earthly peace and that it should keep the people in the rest of the world (and perhaps its own population as well) in fear for the sake of such peace. If that power is not neutral, as is Gort, would it work? Would it not, by the logic of the film, only create more conflict? Doesn't then the film doom the people of earth to conflict and war?

    9. Though Aeon J. Skoble, in his essay titled "Technology and Ethics in The Day the Earth Stood Still", dismisses the idea that the character Klaatu is presented by the film as a kind of Christ-like figure, might that idea still be worth taking seriously? Klaatu adopts the name "Carpenter" (a possible reference to Jesus' earthly profession), dies, is resurrected, and provides (in his terms at least) a kind of redemption or salvation for all of humanity. Skoble's objection is that Jesus did not back his version of salvation with the threat of a potentially world-destroying robot. Isn't, however, the offer of Christian redemption backed up with perhaps an even greater threat--everlasting consignment to hell--along with a promise--entry into heaven? Might one not argue that that threat (and promise), like the threat issued by Klaatu and backed up by Gort (the robot), render the value of good and evil, for Christians, still external, and suggest that the only reason people act morally and avoid aggression against others is to avoid hell and/or to gain admission to heaven rather than for the sake of doing good itself?
    Last edited by Steven Brence; 07-17-2017, 10:25 AM.