Skip to comments.If Aliens Decided to Destroy Humanity, Could We Blame Them? [remake: The Day The Earth Stood Still]
Posted on 12/15/2008 8:15:41 PM PST by LibWhacker
Friday was the opening of The Day the Earth Stood Still starring Keanu Reeves and Jennifer Connelly; its director Scott Derricksons 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 hasnt actually gone away the chance of a nuclear weapon being used within the next decade is probably higher than it was in the 1970s or 80s (although perhaps not the 50s or 60s). 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 isnt 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 isnt that much tension in the question of how the plot will be resolved; I hope Im 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 werent), so were 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 Ill just say that I dont think they managed to be quite as suspenseful this time.
But there remains one form of suspense that I thought the film couldnt 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. Lets be conservative and imagine that life couldnt 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, its 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.
Its simply impossible for us to accurately conceive what such aliens might be like. (When Jennifer Connellys 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.) Its 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 Batess 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 wouldnt be a clash of civilizations; more likely, from the alienss perspective it would be like the clash of an annoyed homeowner dealing with mildew, or perhaps an infestation of cockroaches if were 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 dont contaminate any traces of life that might be clinging to the other planet. But clearly, thats not because we place great value on the continued existence of any one species. Rather, its because (to us) any kind of life on another planet would be incredibly unique and interesting. But theres 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 were lucky, they might give us the respect that a human being would show an ant colony or a swarm of bees. If were 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 its 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 were 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 arent many alien civilizations that would have done that!
So basically, Im suggesting that this is a film that would have been improved by the addition of a few imaginative philosophical debates. You dont 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.
If aliens do exist, they're probably an apex predator like humans, and with apex predators, like Highlander, there can be only one. So yes, wiping us out would be the logical step. Makes you think about SETI a bit differently, huh?
Two words: Battlefield Earth. ;)
I thought the title said if aliens decided to destroy HANNITY, Could we blame them, on first glance.
“any civilization that is capable of traveling interstellar distances must have figured out how to live peacefully, right? “
Yeah, like Chris Columbus and those who followed him.
Klaatu (Keanu Reeves) reminded me Al Gore.... :o)
The same unemotional wooden character
In AI, the aliens who showed up to do archaeology after we were gone were sorry they missed us, they thought we were great and would have made great friends. They had pretty much melded machine, computer, and individual.
In the Tales of Known Space by Niven, the worst actors were herd vegetarians, the Puppeteers, who did things like sneaky breeding programs on us, and steering us to their enemies to fight wars. So top-of-the-food-chin hunters are not necessarily the worst threat.
In Clark’s Childhood’s End (1953) the aliens ruled us absolutely to prepare us for cosmic assimilation by “higher beings”, with lots of religious overtones. Imagine if interstellar evangelists showed up to lead us to the True Path! Frederic Pohl covered some of this in the Eschaton Trilogy (The Other End of Time (1996), The Siege of Eternity (1997), The Far Shore of Time (1999)) in which very powerful aliens and their enemies try to convert us to/save us from a galaxy-wide religion involving the end of everything when the universe collapses into a huge black hole.
Be careful when making your first contact!
Yet another Liberal Armageddon fantasy in overdrive. Usually spouted by our betters who can't understand why we won't just do what they say. The end result of having their ambitions frustrated (ie, us dumb Red Staters aren't buying a massive Socialist intervention in the economy to "cure" Global Warming and turn 99.9999% of the country back into a huge forest) is fantasies about the world being destroyed because no one listened to them.
I was mostly interested in the movie for the comparison to the original, and as I mentioned in a previous post, there are many corresponding points of detail.
A general observation I would make is that the remake illustrates the increased mystification of science in the popular arts. In the original, Klaatu is a projection of ourselves, as indicated by the popular concept of aliens as near human humanoids which was accepted at the time. Of course, Klaatu's technology was represented as "far beyond" our own, but it was still in the same mold as ours in outline. One might question what imaginable scientific basis there could be for the title ploy, but it did connect in a general way with such later developments as the E-M pulse, even if there remains a fantastical element to it.
In the remake, science as a discipline is just cast to the winds in favor extravagance and spectacle. Now Klaatu is essentially a god, as he demonstrates with his ability to "back channel" through wires and laser beams to produce arbitrary effects. Note also the "ship" which is not a craft as we would recognize it, but a mystical cauldron, coincidentally bearing a symbolical resemblance to the earth. There's no real difference between the supposed alien technology presented here and the mystical manifestations of movies like the new MUMMY series.
You dont need to worry until First Contact occurs on April 14, 2063.
Indiana Jones Temple of Doom: "We are going to D I E!"
No way this thing does anything but B O M B at the box office.
I think you hit it. Klaatu is supposed to be Alien Gore.
(When Jennifer Connellys 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.)
No one seems willing to raise the really important question - what do the aliens taste like?
They’re out there meddling in the universe, we’re not ... we’re stuck in our own little world ....
Bet he wishes he could get that back so he could destroy it. But then it was done for religion so that makes it okay.
I guess you all haven’t heard yet. The Vogons are going to blow up the Earth to make way for an Interstellar highway. Sorry about that.
You mean you have instituted a program involving the state condoned mass slaughter of unborn humans!!?? Your OWN race??!! And you consider yourself sentient? We cannot allow such creatures to spread through the galaxy... die evil scum!! ZZZAAARRRRK
The alien is leaving Hannity in January.
Damn, I have a tee time at Pebble Beach that day!
Just change it to Spyglass while there’s still time.
What I’ve come to expect from Hollywood in the epics is a parody of their own self-loating writ gallactically large.
We're like life in a pond wondering if there is life outside of the pond. While life outside of the pond goes about its thing paying us no mind because... we're pond scum.
Any Alien that visits our pond is probably a juvenile looking for tadpoles to let grow and pull the legs off. Or looking for ants to fry with a magnifying glass.
To us, outside life would be fascinating. To outside life, we are dull and boring and not noticed. Just like we find all kinds of things on this ball of mud dull and boring and don't notice them.
Of course, if this planet has resources they want/need, then our sentience matters not. We're just so much cattle to be swept aside. Sucks, but, C'est La Vie.
Aliens like beer.
the remake stunk
Yes and no... I wouldn’t blame aliens for wanting to destroy us one bit, but the reason I believe that is not because we’re doing something horrible to the environment or whatever, but because some alien accidentally picked up on an MTV/VH1 program, and decided we MUST be destroyed before we could contaminate their culture with things like Britney-Lindsay-Paris or reality TV...
“Of course, if this planet has resources they want/need, then our sentience matters not. We’re just so much cattle to be swept aside. Sucks, but, C’est La Vie.”
I saw “Independence Day” great movie ....
including a great performance by Jaden Smith in the role of the petulant stepson.
I thought the kid needed a boot in the a**. He was really annoying.
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