Friday was the opening of The Day the Earth Stood Still starring Keanu Reeves and Jennifer Connelly; it’s director Scott Derrickson’s remake of the 1951 Robert Wise classic. The previous Friday witnessed our panel discussion at Caltech about how science intersected with the film. Reviews thus far (of both the movie and the panel) have been mixed; personally, I thoroughly enjoyed the panel and thought the movie rose to the level of “pretty good.” (Lost amidst the excitement of aliens and CGI was the excellent acting in the film, including a great performance by Jaden Smith in the role of the petulant stepson.) But it could have been great.
Derrickson refers to his own film as a “popcorn movie with interesting ideas,” and there is certainly nothing wrong with that. The original movie was extremely compelling because it managed to be gripping and suspenseful as a narrative, while also dealing with some very big ideas. In 1951 we had just entered the atomic age, the Cold War was starting, and the Space Race was about to begin (Sputnik was 1957). Moreover, radio astronomy was just taking off, and people were beginning to talk semi-seriously about the search for extraterrestrial intelligence; Fermi introduced his celebrated paradox (“Where are they?”) in 1950. The time was right to put everything together in a compelling movie.
The threat of nuclear war hasn’t actually gone away — the chance of a nuclear weapon being used within the next decade is probably higher than it was in the 1970’s or 80’s (although perhaps not the 50’s or 60’s). But now we also have the danger of environmental catastrophe, which was alluded to in the movie. But the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still basically sidestepped questions of international cooperation, which were crucial to the original version. The heady mix of ideas and drama that was waiting to be tapped in 1951 isn’t quite as obvious today.
A huge problem with a remake like this is that the 2008 movie-going audience comes with a very different set of expectations than the 1951 audience would have. We are very used to giant special-effects extravaganzas in which aliens want to destroy the earth, so the conceit itself is not sufficient to keep us interested. And there isn’t that much tension in the question of how the plot will be resolved; I hope I’m not giving away any spoilers by saying that humanity is not destroyed. We know that humanity is going to be saved (although it would be something if it weren’t), so we’re not on the edge of our seat wondering about that. There might be some tension in the particular method by which the saving is accomplished; the original did a great job on that score with the iconic robot Gort, and without giving away anything about the remake I’ll just say that I don’t think they managed to be quite as suspenseful this time.
But there remains one form of suspense that I thought the film couldn’t have taken advantage of more than it actually did: the questions of why aliens might want to wipe us out, and whether humanity is worth saving in the first place. Judgmental aliens are a staple of science fiction, but how realistic are they?
To put things in perspective, the universe is 14 billion years old and the Solar System is about five billion years old. Let’s be conservative and imagine that life couldn’t arise around first-generation (Pop II or Pop III) stars, since the abundance of “metals” (to an astronomer, any element heavier than hydrogen or helium) was practically nil. You need at least a second-generation star, formed in a region seeded with the important heavier elements by prior supernova explosions. But nevertheless, it’s still easy to imagine that the aliens we might eventually come into contact with come from a planet that formed life a billion or two years earlier than life began on Earth. Now, a billion years ago, we were still struggling with the whole multi-celluarity thing. So we should imagine aliens that have evolved past our current situation by an amount analogous to which we have evolved past, say, red algae.
It’s simply impossible for us to accurately conceive what such aliens might be like. (When Jennifer Connelly’s exobiologist asks Klaatu, the alien who has assumed the shape of Keanu Reeves, what his true form is like, he quite believably replies “It would only frighten you.”) It’s completely plausible to imagine that advanced civilizations routinely leave behind their biological forms to dwell within a computer simulation or some other form of artificial substrate for consciousness. As plausible as anything else, really.
But if they did pay us a visit, is it plausible to imagine that they would want to wipe us out? Since we have no actual experience on which to base an answer, one option is to look at our own history, as the Kathy Bates’s Secretary of Defense does in The Day the Earth Stood Still. The lesson is not cheerful: more powerful civilizations tend to either subjugate less powerful ones, or wipe them out entirely. Okay, you say, but any civilization that is capable of traveling interstellar distances must have figured out how to live peacefully, right?
Maybe. The problem is, it wouldn’t be a clash of civilizations; more likely, from the aliens’s perspective it would be like the clash of an annoyed homeowner dealing with mildew, or perhaps an infestation of cockroaches if we’re feeling generous. Turning again to experience, human beings are right now causing one of the great mass extinctions in the history of the planet. We could stop killing off other species, but we find that it would slightly cramp our lifestyle to do so, and we decide not to make that sacrifice. True, when we send spaceships to Mars and elsewhere, we are very careful to take steps to ensure that we don’t contaminate any traces of life that might be clinging to the other planet. But clearly, that’s not because we place great value on the continued existence of any one species. Rather, it’s because (to us) any kind of life on another planet would be incredibly unique and interesting. But there’s no reason to believe that we would be all that unique from the perspective of a galaxy-weary alien civilization. They may well have bumped into millions of worlds featuring all sorts of life. If we’re lucky, they might give us the respect that a human being would show an ant colony or a swarm of bees. If we’re lucky.
This is an area in which science fiction, for all its vaunted imagination, is traditionally quite conservative. With some notable exceptions, we tend to assume that the forms life can take are neatly divided into “intelligent species” and “everyone else,” and we are snugly in the former category, and all intelligent species are roughly equally intelligent and it’s just a matter of time before we get our own seat in the Galactic Parliament. Although SF offers a unique opportunity to examine the way we live as humans in comparison to different ways we might live, the usual answer it gives is that the way we’re living now is pretty much the best we can imagine — alien lifestyles are much more often portrayed as profoundly lacking in some crucial feature of individuality or passion than they are as a real improvement over our current messy situation. We are special because we love our children, or because we are plucky and have so much room for improvement. We voted for Obama, after all. I bet there aren’t many alien civilizations that would have done that!
So basically, I’m suggesting that this is a film that would have been improved by the addition of a few imaginative philosophical debates. You don’t want to be didactic or tiresome, but those are not necessary qualities of a discussion of deep ideas. If the ideas are interesting enough, they might even improve your box office.