The Second Coming of Klaatu; Biblical Allusions in The Day the Earth Stood Still and its Remake
The 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still was released more than 50 years after the original. Yet, both films share a surprising number of similarities. In both films, the alien, Klaatu, visits Earth to dissuade humanity’s destructive ways, while his robotic companion, Gort, threatens mankind with annihilation if they fail to comply (Derrickson, 2008a; Wise, 1951). Perhaps the most peculiar similarity, however, lies in the remake’s retention of the original’s usage of Biblical symbolism and allusions. In the original, Klaatu, played by Michael Rennie, adopts the alias, ‘Carpenter’, an allusion to the profession of Jesus Christ, and even makes an overt reference to ‘the Almighty Spirit’. In the remake, the film’s director, Scott Derrickson (2008b), has referred to Klaatu, played by Keanu Reeves, Gort, and the spheres that descend upon the Earth, as a ‘Trinity’ which visit Earth with a specific purpose. Furthermore, mirroring the Biblical narrative of Noah, the spheres function as an ‘Ark’ to preserve the Earth’s natural diversity from the ‘flood’– Gort’s destructive capabilities. In both films, Klaatu is portrayed as a Christ-like figure, who descends upon Earth in human form to warn humanity of its impending judgment and destruction; Klaatu is betrayed by a character he knows and is ultimately forced to sacrifice himself to save humanity from Gort’s destruction.
However, while Biblical allusions have been retained, both films crucially diverge on the pretext for Klaatu’s visit. The Klaatu of the original is concerned with humanity’s newfound capacity for waging nuclear warfare, while Reeve’s Klaatu is more worried about the environmental damage that humans have inflicted. It appears that although real-world concerns have changed, the applicability of Biblical allusions to these concerns have not. This raises the question: how do we account for the enduring relevance of Biblical analogy to discuss real-world issues as disparate as nuclear war and environmental destruction in these two films? In this essay, I will argue that the significance of religious subtext in both films coupled with the themes of environmentalism in 2008 and nuclear warfare in 1951 evinces a statement about the attitudes and anxieties of religious communities across different time periods. Specifically, the original appears to reflect elements of Christian anti-nuclear sentiment which gained traction during the Cold War with the threat of nuclear destruction, while the remake mirrors Christian environmentalist movements which grew in popularity in the late 20th century with figures like Pope John Paul II and Benedict XIV both championing environmental preservation. The lasting relevance of Biblical narrative to these real world issues is therefore made possible by the religious institutions who help to create an awareness and understanding of the applicability of religious text to these issues. This essay will first discuss the usage of religious allusions in both movies and how they help to convey environmentalist and pacifist themes, following which I will look at how real-world rhetoric used by religious communities have evolved about these issues between the release of the two films.
With public anxieties about the threat of climate change and nuclear warfare, it should be no surprise that Biblical allusions to the End Times have found their way into the modern lexicon. The usage of Christian narrative rhetorically has the capacity to invoke a common understanding about the urgency and extent of a crisis by drawing from a common source that audiences are familiar with. For example, the movie Armageddon (1998) draws its namesake from the Biblical site of the battle prophesized in the book of Revelations (Bay, 1998), and by doing so, suggests to the audience that a similar scale of destruction described by the Bible, will take place within the movie. Particularly, apocalyptic allusions have the capacity to help audiences associate the movie’s narrative and conflicts with the prophesized battles, catastrophes, and disasters from the Bible. Whether intentional or not, the utilization of this common narrative by both films therefore has the potential to subversively influence the way the audience thinks about the importance of the themes portrayed.
In the 1951 film, Klaatu’s story closely matches gospel accounts of the life of Christ. As Lucanio (1987) notes, ‘[the film] offers allusions to the apocalypse, and its hero’s plight to save mankind in spite of itself owes much of its structure to the New Testament’ (p. 45). Through his technological superiority, Klaatu is able to perform ‘miracles’ such as healing himself and stopping the flow of electricity globally. Klaatu is even brought back from the dead by Gort, whose name acts as a homophone for ‘God’, when he gets shot. Most explicitly, Klaatu references an ‘Almighty Spirit’ as the only being who has the power of ‘life and death’. The parallel drawn between Klaatu and Christ allows the audience to subconsciously extrapolate these similarities to include the message that both figures present. If the character and story arch of Klaatu closely matches that of Christ, the audience might think, so does their message for the world. The urgency and importance of the ministry of Christ in the New Testament regarding the salvation of humanity therefore becomes associated with Klaatu’s message for peace and nuclear disarmament.
Klaatu references the ‘Almighty Spirit’ after being resurrected.
The remake of the movie retains the original’s depiction of Klaatu as a messianic figure, with the added caveat of being played by Reeves who also portrayed another Christ-like, ‘Chosen One’, figure in The Matrix (Wachowski & Wachowski, 1999). However, the remake also draws allusisons to other parts of the Bible. In the remake, Gort is comprised of innumerable microscopic robotic insects that consume everything in their path, mimicking the eighth plague of locusts inflicted on Egypt in Exodus, while Klaatu plays the role of Moses as an interlocutor trying to mediate with an ignorant and arrogant humanity who analogises the Pharoah. At the same time, the presence of ‘Arks’ to save specimens of human life is reminiscent of the tale of Noah in Genesis. This imagery calls to mind the ‘jealous and vengeful’ God of the Old Testament; just as God washes the Earth clean of the wickedness of people in the story of Noah, so does Gort in the remake, saving just enough specimens to repopulate the Earth after the cleansing has completed. Through the employment of these Biblical images, the film sets the matter of environmental degradation side by side with the calamitous deaths of millions as described in these Biblical narratives. The subtextual meaning here being that the continued destruction of the environment by humanity will lead to a similar near-apocalyptic loss of life.
Derrickson’s remake goes one step further to overtly state how religious institutions in the film react to the appearance of alien life forms on Earth. A news broadcast describes that ‘while some [religious institutions] have responded with hope and measured optimism, most religious communities have considered recent events as apocalyptic.’ Explicitly, this statement indicates how the producers imagined the reaction of religious communities towards a crisis like this to be. However, this statement also serves as a metaphor for how religious communities have reacted to other crises such as the possibility of nuclear war and climate change; that is, that these events and concerns have potentially world-ending consequences. Such apocalyptic connections are not without real-world complements– a study conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that 14% of Americans believed global warming to be a sign of the end times (Roser-Renouf, 2016). We should not find this statistic altogether surprising considering the calamitous terms that religious institutions like the Catholic church have used to describe such phenomena. For example, Pope John Paul II (2001) referred to the consequences of mankind’s ecological destruction as a ‘catastrophe to which it has been heading’, in a January 2001 address.
Public appreciation of the applicability of religious narratives to the real world are largely informed by what religious authorities like the Vatican have to say about these issues. This hence has an effect on the producer’s choice of religious metaphor and the themes that they allude to, as well as the moviegoer’s reception of these symbols. For instance, a church’s rhetoric about climate change as being catastrophic would accordingly affect an adherant’s belief on the moral responsibility that he or she undertakes as a believer. Filmmakers may then make use of this explicit association, to implicitly express anxieties of a global warming catastrophe through religious subtext that resonates with the viewer. A common language based on these narratives is thus precipitated between religious communities, the audience, and the movie producer, with the vogue of religious messages regarding these real world issues being reflected through subtextual messages on screen. Analysing how religious attitudes towards nuclear war and climate change have adapted over the years can therefore afford us a better idea of how the film-making choices in The Day The Earth Stood Still and its remake have been affected by real-world religious institutions, and how these films reflect certain ideas and movements that were popular with religious groups during their release.
In the case of the original The Day The Earth Stood Still, themes of nuclear warfare are reflected in post-WWII anxieties about the destructive capacity of nuclear weapons by religious groups. Writing in The Catholic Worker in 1945, Dorothy Day would refer to the creation of the atomic bomb with apocalyptic imagery stating that ‘this new weapon, [had the capacity to] wipe out mankind and perhaps the planet itself’ (as cited in Grant, 2016, pp. 206-207). Day’s criticism further makes use of a story from the gospel of Luke to extend her point: “When James and John… wished to call down fire from heaven on their enemies, Jesus said: ‘You know not of what spirit you are. The Son of man came not to destroy souls, but to save.’” This establishes an association between Biblical narrative and the real issue of nuclear warfare for the reader. That is, according to Day, Jesus would not have supported the manufacture and usage of nuclear weapons. This association is alluded to by the film where the messianic Klaatu similarly opposes humanity’s destructive tendencies and pursuit of nuclear weapons.
The choice to exclude this theme of nuclear warfare by the remake in favour for human environmental degradation, similarly reflects how emphasis has been shifted from achieving nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation to environmental issues such as environmental destruction and climate change by religious institutions in the years following the release of the original. Pope John Paul II (1990) signaled this change when he mentioned that “world peace is threatened not only by the arms race, …., but also by a lack of due respect for nature, by the plundering of natural resource. Later in a 2001 address, the 81 year-old Pope would refer to environmental catastrophe using apocalyptic terms, saying that ‘Man is no longer the Creator’s “steward”, but an autonomous despot, who is finally beginning to understand that he must stop at the edge of the abyss’ (John Paul II, 2001). This idea that humanity only learns to change when confronted with its annihilation is parroted by John Cleese’s character in the remake, that ‘only on the brink do people find the will to change’.
Both movies feature significant religious subtext that draw inspiration not only from Biblical tales, but also from what religious authorities had to say about these real world issues at different points of time. By doing so, these films were able to resonate with audiences who were exposed to these associations and ideas from their religious communities. As Kozlovic (2013) notes, ‘These additional layers of religious meaning helped propel [The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)] into cult status, even if viewers did not know exactly why it affected them so profoundly’ (para. 41). The shift from nuclear warfare as the main motivator for Klaatu’s arrival, to human’s environmental degradation in 2008, reflect a similar turn in environmental rhetoric used by religious groups in the years between the release of the original and the remake, and accordingly, a shift in the anxieties held by its adherents. While this may give us a better understanding of how religious subtext in film is influenced by religious communities, and subsequently, how this subtext may in turn be used to influence the way that audiences view a certain real world issue, the question remains on whether such subtext will impact non-religious viewers in the same way. If not, does that mean that films like The Day The Earth Stood Still will fail to have the same effect on an increasingly areligious society?
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