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Message Movie − Message = ?

Posted by Doug on December 17, 2008

Really, what do you have when you take the message out of a message movie?

Some spoilers follow (like a movie based on a sixty-eight-year-old story can be spoiled, but just in case, you have been warned…)

I saw The Day the Earth Stood Still yesterday, and I was less than impressed.  There was the requisite quota of eye-candy special effects, but not much else.  The story: Klaatu comes to Earth to decide whether or not humanity needs to be eliminated to preserve Earth’s ecosystem, decides humanity’s got to go, Gort starts eliminating everything, then Klaatu changes his mind, stops Gort, and leaves, the end.

Klaatu came with a mission to speak to the United Nations; he did not.  After his conversation with Professor Barnhardt, he determines that humanity just needs a kick in the pants to get serious about the environment…and then he doesn’t kick them in the pants.  He just leaves.  Oh, he left humanity with the aftermath of Gort going to town (a regional  disaster, nothing cataclysmic), and disabled all the world’s technology, but he never delivered any sort of message to the world (or, for that matter, the audience).  He just…left, no doubt leaving the whole world wondering What the heck was that all about?

When you remake a movie, comparisons to the original are inevitable.  Yes, the 1951 original was superior; it is a classic.  The remake’s addition of color, surround sound, and CG are not improvements, nor were they detrimental—those things are simply irrelevent.  With a message movie—and The Day the Earth Stood Still is one—the message is everything.  In the original, Klaatu had a message (“Humanity: grow up, or be destroyed”), and he delivered it, after causing the entire world to sit up and listen to him with the titular deed.  The message was delivered, both in the story to the leaders of the Earth governments, and to the audience.

No such thing happened in the remake: the only lesson that could be learned from Klaatu’s actions is that all humanity needs to do in order to stave off an environmental apocalypse is for a few people to play a little Bach and promise we’ll do something later.  Sorry, that shouldn’t have been enough.

Oh, there was a “price to the human way of life”: whatever disabled Gort disabled all of earth’s technology as well, but that probably would not have the desired effect.  Quite the opposite: humanity, having no reason not to rebuild, certainly would rebuild (we’re such irrepressible simians that way), and with all the easily-accessible resources having already been used up, they would have to resort to the more difficult-to-obtain ones, and in the scramble to obtain them, would likely consider further damage to the environment a “necessary evil.”  Environmental concerns would be brushed aside as humanity struggled to reassert themselves as the pinnacle of Earth’s life-forms.

By leaving humanity in a desperate state with no direction, Klaatu simply set them up to repeat their mistakes.  Klaatu’s actions were not thought out particularly well, doubly so given that he is supposedly a significantly advanced intelligence, and not thinking things through is part and parcel of why the environment is in such a state to begin with! Klaatu’s message, if there was one, was not delivered; his solution, in the end, is as bad or worse than doing nothing at all.

Given that a message movie is equal to its message, when you take the message out of the message movie, you are left with nothing.

The Day the Earth Stood Still is a message movie without a clear message.

I leave the math as an exercise for the reader.

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