Religion & Liberty Online

June 5: The Day the Earth Stood Still

For those among us who do not follow the particularities of United Nations programs and declarations, apart from birthdays and anniversaries June 5 might pass every year without much special notice. But every year since 1972, the United Nations Environment Programme has set aside June 5 to observe World Environment Day (WED), designed to be “one of the principal vehicles through which the United Nations stimulates worldwide awareness of the environment and enhances political attention and action.”

On this WED, we pause to look at another vehicle for promotion of the environmental worldview, the recent remake of the film The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008). In last year’s iteration of the 1951 sci-fi classic, Keanu Reeves stars as Klaatu, an alien visitor who takes on the body of a human being in order to determine the best way to engage the situation on planet Earth. [Spoilers after the jump…]

Klaatu arrives as an emissary of sorts, whose goal is to meet up with another alien agent who has been embedded among humans for decades. This embedded agent was supposed to gather intelligence and determine whether or not humans were able to handle the responsibilities of a mature civilization. Part and parcel of this maturity is respect for the planet and its ecosystem. Earth, according to Klaatu, is rapidly approaching a crisis, the point of no return, beyond which it is impossible to recover the sustainability of the environment. After a number of explosive encounters with the American military, Klaatu eventually arrives for the debriefing with the embedded agent. The agent had stopped sending in reports, which was part of the reason for Klaatu’s personal visit.

The agent confirms the status of his previously communicated assessment: mankind is destroying the Earth and they are a people incapable of change. As Mr. Wu reports, “They are destructive, and they won’t change.” The galactic equivalent of the United Nations has deemed the human race worthy of extinction because of actions detrimental to the Earth. Klaatu has come to release a scourge that will cleanse the planet of all marks of human existence: “We’ll undo the damage you’ve done and give the Earth a chance to begin again.”

Dr. Helen Benson, who was enraptured with Klaatu since his arrival, finally becomes aware of his mission in a pivotal scene. Klaatu tells her, “This planet is dying. The human race is killing it.” She cannot believe what she is hearing: “You came to save the Earth… from us. You came to save the Earth from us.” Klaatu confirms her fears, saying, “We can’t risk the survival of this planet for the sake of one species…. If the Earth dies, you die. If you die, the Earth survives. There are only a handful of planets in the cosmos that are capable of supporting complex life…. this one can’t be allowed to perish…. It’s reached the tipping point. We have to act.” The aliens begin taking living samples of all the species of the Earth to repopulate it after the scourge.

The rest of the movie revolves around Dr. Benson desperately trying to convince Klaatu that human beings can change, and they only lack the proper motivation. The aliens can provide that motivation, and can also lead the humans out of their narcissistic darkness into the brightness of mature civilization. Benson brings Klaatu to a mentor of hers, the Nobel laureate Professor Barnhardt (rather inexplicably portrayed by John Cleese).

Cleese tries to reason with Klaatu, arguing that a species’ worth can only be truly tested amidst the stress of the refiner’s fire. “You say we’re on the brink of destruction and you’re right. But it’s only on the brink that people find the will to change. Only at the precipice do we evolve. This is our moment. Don’t take it from us, we are close to an answer.” At the climax of the movie, Klaatu becomes convinced of the professor’s argument and tells Helen, “Your professor is right. At the precipice we change.” This means that he has decided to attempt to thwart the scourge, which had already begun sweeping the planet. Klaatu acknowledges of stopping the scourge, “It would come at a price, to you and your way of life.” Bernard takes him up on his offer: “But we can change, you know that now. Please, please, just give us a chance.”

Klaatu does decide to give human beings a chance, and that chance amounts to a world without electricity, a world literally “standing still.” Mere hundreds of millions rather than the billions of total extinction die, all for the chance for humanity to embrace a “sustainable” way of life. This movie lacks a great deal in terms of style. It verges on preachy, evoking Al Gore in his insufferable moments at almost every turn. But in terms of content, the movie is even more disastrous. It places human beings at a level of simply one among many. For Klaatu, there’s little if any difference in valuation between the species Homo sapiens and that of any other innumerable species inhabiting the planet.

It ought to be noted that the UN’s World Environment Day doesn’t commit this same error. One of the purposes of WED is to “give a human face to environmental issues” and to point people towards “a safer and more prosperous future.” There is potentially a large gap between these two environmental visions. The Day the Earth Stood Still evokes a relativistic environmental ethic, where each species is regarded as equally important, equally valuable, equally precious. But this does not reflect reality. The life of a sparrow is not of the same worth as the life of a human being. Only an environmental ethic that can account for the unique dignity and value of the human person that bears any connection with traditional Christian morality.

Both in terms of delivery and content, The Day the Earth Stood Still does the environmental movement a disservice. And the film has not been well received, garnering a 21% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and being nominated for a 2009 Razzie Award as Worst Prequel, Remake, Rip-Off or Sequel: “The Day the Earth Blowed Up Real Good.”

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of the First Liberty Institute. He has previously held research positions at the Acton Institute and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and has authored multiple books, including a forthcoming introduction to the public theology of Abraham Kuyper. Working with Lexham Press, he served as a general editor for the 12 volume Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology series, and his research can be found in publications including Journal of Markets & Morality, Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Faith & Economics, and Calvin Theological Journal. He is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.