The Day the Earth Stood Still, a remake of the 1951 black and white movie classic of the same title, will be released December 12. I can’t wait to see it.
A emissary from the galactic federation is coming to warn Earth about its bad environmental habits. We’re trashing up the neighborhood and our alien neighbors don’t like it. At least, that’s my hunch on the warning this alien emissary brings. Could be something else; the trailers I’ve watched aren’t very explicit. But since green is in and everybody and his sister is warning us already, I don’t see why aliens from the galactic federation shouldn’t feel free to stick their oar in the water too.
In any case, I think it is less likely that the 2008 emissary will bring the same warning he brought in 1951. That time it was about war, violence, and atomic weaponry. He was against all three, should you wonder. Earth’s neighbors in the Milky Way Galaxy were shocked by way we Earthlings settle disputes and positively panicked that we had acquired atomic weapons for use as tools of argument. Combine atomic weapons with space travel and, really, there go galactic property values!
The 1951 visitor from out there¯Klaatu¯was sent to bump us off. A day trip to the Lincoln Memorial, though, convinces Klaatu that Earth is sometimes capable of producing great persons of sensitivity and feeling (group sigh, everyone). Shortly after reaching this conviction, U.S. soldiers shoot and kill Klaatu. But he is resurrected by his faithful robot companion, Gort.
You’d think this life-death-life experience would confirm Klaatu’s original intention of wiping us out, but Klaatu high-mindedly sticks with his plan for a warning. Instead of a little galactic pest control, Klaatu decides to give Earth a wake-up call. A world-wide blackout where nothing moves, he thinks, might get our attention. It does, and in his farewell speech to some gathered world scientists¯a kind of Sermon on the Spaceship Ramp¯Klaatu warns that if his warning goes unheeded, Earth will be destroyed. “The decision rests with you.” Then he turns on his heel, puts his spaceship in drive and goes up, up, and up. This is a near biblical ascension and, of course, that’s exactly how the filmmakers want you to see it.
This is the way a lot of “alien as messiah” films go, and the 1951 version had more than its share of religious stuff. There was Klaatu’s reference to “the Almighty Spirit,” plus that climatic Lazarus-like resurrection. There was, however, nothing miraculous to be found. It was due to a medical science far beyond our capacity to understand. In these alien--savior films, everything is beyond our capacity to understand.
In the 1982 E.T., we have both a resurrection (cheers were said to be heard in theatres) and an ascension, awe-struck humans looking upward at their departing friend.
You want more sci-fi religion? There’s Jeff Bridges as the Starman in 1984. He impregnates an Earth woman and promises that her Child will be a Teacher. That’s my capitalization of the two words, but you won’t miss the capital letters dripping from the Starman’s accent. There was even a short-lived television series based on the product of that union. Starman, by the way, resurrects a deer killed by a red-neck hunter¯so, take that you awful NRA people! Were the film being made today, I think an Alaskan moose shot by a pony-tailed governor would likely get the role. While there is no resurrection in Starman, except for the deer, the ascension scene is not to be missed¯another picture of slack-jawed humans gazing wonderingly upward.
We want to believe there’s Somebody Out There, somebody wiser, stronger, smarter, kinder than ourselves. Surely, in this vast, incomprehensible cosmos there must be other beings selflessly prepared to snatch us out of our troubles. You can hope so. A lot of science fiction is depending on it.
I think a more interesting storyline¯but not nearly as exciting¯would be the ultimate discovery that we are home alone in the universe. Get familiar with something called the “Rare Earth hypothesis,” and you might be convinced of it. As a hypothesis, Rare Earth has stirred up great opposition from scientists bent on believing that we must have galactic neighbors. It’s almost a matter of faith, because to think that this Earth might be the only earth is just too, well, peculiar.
Ancient theologians had something similar. They talked about the scandal of particularity, the theological speculation that God uses particular times, particular places, and particular people to show himself, and that he uses them in such a way as to create deep perplexity if not outright shock.
Today we’d use the word peculiar to summarize a strange sort of God who leaves but hints of his existence within creation, and who may even be said to hide himself behind his work. It is possible, simply from science, to deny the existence of any deity at all. It is also the case that not a few scientists come to faith exactly by examining the intricate discoveries made by science. But if there is a god who is the God, he plays hide-and-seek behind, within, and throughout his creation. Strange behavior for God¯downright peculiar.
But if God¯as Jews, Christians, and Muslims say¯does act for the whole cosmos, that leaves open an interesting possibility. Maybe, if the aliens ever do land on Earth, their first words won’t be “Take us to your leader,” but “Where can we worship?”
Russell E. Saltzman is the pastor of Ruskin Heights Lutheran Church in Kansas City, Missouri and the former editor of the Lutheran Forum Letter.
The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)