By Greg Mucci
To take a line from The Wizard of Oz, “we aren’t in Kansas anymore, Toto.” Except this time, Dorothy’s a newly transplanted alien named Klaatu, Toto an 8-foot-tall steel gargantuan named Gort, and Kansas a post-WWII America. Even though over 60 years have passed since Robert Wise’s monumentally impacting sci-fi classic The Day the Earth Stood Still was released, the parallels between then and now are still interchangeable.
Political fears shape the foundation of social ideals, suspicions of foreign outsiders eat away at our core values, and the use of media still incites false representation of facts and world views. After WWII and the defeat of Nazi-occupied Germany, the lens of war was shifted, with many of the atrocities and destruction being misrepresented to your average citizen. Through this screen, fear and suspicion were established, instilling in Americans mistrust for others, specifically those from foreign soil.
When an alien spacecraft touches down in Washington DC, panic washes over the nation as fear of another world war and a home invasion spreads like wild fire. Emerging from the craft is Klaatu, a humanoid declaring his arrival a peaceful one with good intentions. Regardless, a soldier fires upon Klaatu, injuring him and prompting Gort to disintegrate the weapons and tanks that have gathered around the area. Soon after managing to escape, Klaatu finds himself at a roadside inn, where with the help of Helen Benson and her son Bobby, he begins to understand the methods of this world.
After World War II, much of the world was uneasy, a growing sense of suspicion arising from an instilled fear of pain and suffering. When Allied soldiers liberated the prisoners of Nazi concentration camps, images of what went on came back in pieces, fractured through the biased lens of television and radio. This increasingly popular box became a gateway for information, sought after by millions of Americans who believed what they heard as the ultimate declaration of life, liberty and truth.
As reports of Klaatu’s arrival begin filtering through the media, we are taken inside a television set that rests in front of a broadcaster, instructing the people that there is no immediate cause for alarm. However, we are transported into a lens that shows panic, hysteria, force, and fear, as what we don’t comprehend arrives not on Earth’s soil, but America’s Earth. This entitled pride and skewed patriotism encouraged by the media cause the people of Earth to be unable to appease Klaatu’s urgent message of unity and strength.
And how could one expect such things from a people who utilized atomic energy, not for travel as Klaatu has through his space craft, but for destructive power? When we dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, hundreds of thousands of human lives were taken, as “a rain of ruin from the air” was cast down on Japan– a message from Harry Truman that came with a heavy warning similar to the one directed at Earth by Klaatu. It was this immense and swift act of terror that won the war and subsequently destroyed the hope of a united and trusted nation of one.
With Klaatu having escaped the confines of his guarded hospital room and experiencing life in the world he’s come to warn, we are given a sense of the information as it is skewed and directed towards the people. Newspaper headlines reading “Man from Mars Escapes” fill the racks while radio broadcasts filled the airwaves in an attempt to correct the worry that this galactic being has tentacles.
This misinformation and misguided caution arises from the very ashes of the atom bomb’s infinite power, the translation of its destruction being celebratory joy and victory. Reporting’s of those three days, August 3 to August 6, came back in the form of falsified accounts, with many American citizens being force fed little-to-no statistics on what really happened. Similarly, the arrival of Klaatu’s craft, powered by atomic energy, represents a sort of bomb being leveled on American soil, as its peaceful landing and objective creates a terror that had yet to be seen. Working off post-WWII suspicion, the calm of such an unannounced arrival is shifted into a cumulative unease that winds up creating a shift in American sensibilities–harmony turning to violence, order into chaos and understanding into irrationality.
It isn’t until Bobby, a young boy unaware of the world’s political unease and mistrusts, befriends Klaatu, now disguised as a Mr. Carpenter that the humanoid is able to see, first hand, what the wonders of life on Earth can be. Wearing a Yankees cap and filling his days with schoolwork, movies and train sets, Bobby demonstrates what it means to view the world, not through the lens of media and fear, but through a simplified understanding that we are all the same.
Perhaps Klaatu’s arrival is only alien through media representation, altering how we think and feel, like the differing views of the war seen from the safety of home. Maybe he’s a symbol of unity and hope that has only been casted out based off our own fear. If we valued and viewed things right in front of us and not by what’s reported, would our idea of humanity expand passed a sea of ill feelings? While it might take the chaos of a tornado to send Dorothy from the safety of Kansas to Oz, it doesn’t require a whirlwind of fear to bring us back to reality; a place where values and kindness are reportedly no different than that of another planet.