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July 2006 : Essay:

Keeping Watch

Two Cautionary Tales

Let's take a moment to laugh at the mundanes. Not the people who simply don't "get" science fiction and don't want to, but the ones who think they know all they need to about the genre: teenage boys at conventions wearing "Spock ears," stories about robots and ray guns instead of people, and—most importantly—escapism for people who can't face reality. Of course, even Leonard Nimoy hasn't worn Spock ears in over a decade, and defining SF as "robots and rays guns" puts you somewhere in the era of Buck Rogers serials.

It's the last, though, that really grates. Even the people who make some quality SF films and TV shows—or mainstream authors dabbling in the genre—are quick to put down the field even as they play in it. It's a condescension that you rarely see from those making westerns or detective mysteries or love stories. David Langford's multi-award winning newsletter Ansible runs a regular section entitled "As Others See Us" where he chronicles these snarky put-downs. In a recent issue he culls these gems about, of all things, the new Battlestar Galactica:

* "It's sci-fi, yes, but there are no aliens; there are androids, but they look just like us and are fervently religious; and both the best fighter pilot and the president are women. In other words, the conventions of sci-fi are borrowed only to be subverted..." (Radio Times, 7-13 Jan)

* Katee Sackhoff, who plays Starbuck in the series, seems to agree: "I'll meet people who haven't watched the show purely because it's on Sci Fi. I'm like, you've gotta be kidding me. It's not really science fiction. [...] they've turned it into a drama first and a science-fiction series second." (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 19 Jan).

(Both from Ansible, February 2006.)

It takes an astute critic—or, at least, an honest one—to recognize that science fiction is as legitimate as any other genre, and certainly more so than, say, the umpteenth horny teenage comedy obsessed with bodily functions. Academics, journalists, and critics should not make any apologies for considering SF as something worthy of study and analysis. In fact, the argument should not be limited to serious recent SF films, like Gattaca (1998) or Serenity (2005), as if this is a recent development, but should also take in the classics from the past, including the genre's Golden Age of the 1950s. Yes, there's plenty of prime cheese from the era that gave us such gems as Catwomen of the Moon (1953), but there are many great films as well.

Take two of the acknowledged classics that came out in 1951, The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Thing. For some this might sound like a "Creature Double Feature" for a rainy Saturday afternoon, but in fact these are two serious movies that upon closer inspection are engaged in a debate over serious issues. Can we rely on our political and military leaders to always act in our best interests or should we turn to our scientists for wisdom? Should the individual conform to what society deems is best for us, or should we stand up for what we believe is right, even when everyone is telling us we're wrong? Are there some things man is not meant to know, or is the pursuit of knowledge our highest calling?

These are questions with no easy or pat answers and at a time when people tried not to attract attention lest they be deemed subversive or worse, it was science fiction movies that grappled with them head on. Both The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Thing deal with humans encountering their first alien. Day shows the arrival of Klaatu (Michael Rennie), who lands his flying saucer in Washington and appears with his robot Gort. He comes in peace with a warning for humanity that if they think they can develop nuclear weapons and take them into space, they will find a galactic force out there ready to destroy the planet. On the other hand, if they are willing to let Gort-like robots police the planet and wipe out war and violence, Earth will be welcomed into the larger community of the stars.

The Thing, on the other hand, shows a remote scientific outpost at the North Pole which has discovered an alien who is best described as an intelligent vegetable. When the carrot man (James Arness) thaws out, he kills whatever he encounters. Cuttings obtained by one of the scientists grow and thrive when fed human blood. Here is a creature who, arguably, is the scout for a larger force ready to use Earth as a giant home and garden store, with us as the plant food.

Should we welcome these strangers or fear them? These two aliens make clear that these competing films have two very different agendas. In Day we are invited to share Klaatu's viewpoint, and his frustration in not even being able to obtain a meeting to address all of Earth's leaders. He's offered an appointment with the president of the United States, but he is insistent that it must be all world leaders. Invitations are extended, but foreign leaders insist that the meetings must take place in their countries Meanwhile the military keeps Klaatu locked up at a hospital after he's shot by a nervous soldier who mistook an educational device for a weapon. The authorities are fearful and narrow minded, ignoring the evidence right in front of them, as when doctors express bafflement that the elderly Klaatu (by Earth standards) has the body and vigor of a man half his age. They have this discussion while sharing a smoke.

Klaatu escapes, assumes a human identity, and finds that all Earthlings are not as paranoid as their leaders. A mother and son (Patricia Neal, Billy Gray) befriend him, as does Dr. Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe), an Einstein-like scientist whose reaction to meeting his first space alien is to announce that he has a thousand questions to ask him. Day's overt message is a warning about nuclear war, wrapped in a Christ-parable: Klaatu becomes "Mr. Carpenter," he's later killed and resurrected. As Peter Biskind points out in his book on the films of the '50s, Seeing is Believing (Pantheon, 1983), "The Day the Earth Stood Still's respect for intellect makes heroes of professors and aliens..." Those who go against authority figures and the mainstream consensus are the ones worth heeding.

Now compare that with The Thing. The alien is thawed out at the remote North Pole site and goes on rampage. The brilliant Dr. Cornthwaite (Robert Carrington) argues that learning from the alien is more important than life itself, and even takes blood from the medical supplies to feed cuttings from the invader. It is the patriotically named Captain Patrick Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) who successfully argues that strict military discipline must apply, and that they have to destroy the alien. Cornthwaite is isolated and nearly dies trying to communicate with the monster. At film's end his willingness to risk his life earns the respect of the other scientists, but it is Hendry's decision to destroy the invader that is deemed the correct one. We're told to "keep watching the skies," which might apply to Soviet invaders as well as vegetable men from outer space.

The attitude towards authority, particularly that of the government and the military, is quite different. Day shows them unable to appreciate the message from space or the opportunity Klaatu's arrival represents, while Thing shows caution and lack of curiosity to be the only sensible reaction. Biskind, in Seeing is Believing, argues that this debate was taking place across numerous films in the '50s, and he doesn't condescend to the SF films that were very much part of that discussion.

What may be peculiar to SF films in particular is the question over whether there are some things "Man is not meant to know," a debate as old as the Bible and as recent as the Bush administration. Day's Klaatu obviously represents an advanced civilization, with interstellar flight and robots only the most obvious technological improvements. To avoid charges of blasphemy his revival from death is carefully delineated as finite since only the "Almighty Spirit" has the power of life and death. Even so, Day endorses the notion that humans—and other sentient beings—should take their explorations as far as they are able. It's notable that while Earth's political leaders squabble, Dr. Barnhardt has no trouble rounding up the planet's leading scientists and philosophers to meet with Klaatu.

Meanwhile The Thing's Dr. Cornthwaite has clearly gone too far. He gives no thought to what will happen if the little alien cuttings he's growing turn into an army that seeks human blood. He talks about dying for knowledge and while he is willing to risk his own life he is also too ready to risk the lives of others, without a second thought or even stopping to ask their permission. Cornthwaite's curiosity is seen as intellectualism run amuck, and it is the sensible scientists who join with the military in destroying the alien. Here deferring to authority and majority opinion prevails, and the free thinking scientist nearly dooms us all.

One would think science fiction would be the genre that unequivocally endorsed exploration and experimentation, but for every Destination Moon or Close Encounters of the Third Kind there's a Frankenstein or Forbidden Planet or The Fly that tells us that some knowledge is beyond the ability of mere mortals to handle. The current pseudo-debate over evolution can be better understood when we see that there is a long line of argument, even within science fiction, for putting limits to man's knowledge. Claiming to know the origins of life, to this way of thinking, is encroaching on God's territory. Like the myth of Icarus, these cautionary tales warn that too much knowledge can be a dangerous thing, and in 1951—only years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki—was that really an outrageous view to have? Are the Krell of Forbidden Planet, who lost their advanced civilization overnight when they unleashed the power of their minds over matter, all that alien to us? Films like Day and Thing allowed this debate to be played out in our popular culture, even as most people were unable or unwilling to tackle them head on.

Film critics and fans who pontificate over the worst westerns or sappiest romances should not be so quick to dismiss the best of SF film. Genre conventions often allow for the discussion of profound issues which, sometimes, may be too controversial to discuss openly, such as the way Invasion of the Body Snatchers tackled McCarthy Era conformity. The best SF films, like the best SF literature, seek to provoke thought. People who are only noticing the robots and ray guns haven't really been paying attention at all.

Copyright © 2006, Daniel M. Kimmel. All Rights Reserved.

About Daniel M. Kimmel

Daniel M. Kimmel is past president of the Boston Society of Film Critics. His reviews can be found at He is local correspondent for Variety and teaches film at Suffolk University, including a course on SF. His book on the history of FOX TV, The Fourth Network (Ivan R. Dee, Publisher, 2004), received the Cable Center Book Award. He is also author of The Dream Team -- The Rise and Fall of DreamWorks: Lessons from the New Hollywood . His essay, "The Batman We Deserve," appears in Batman Unauthorized, an entry in the SmartPop series from BenBella Books. His latest book is I'll Have What She's Having -- Behind the Scenes of the Great Romantic Comedies.


Jul 11, 00:14 by IROSF
A thread to discuss the The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Thing, or Daniel M. Kimmel's discussion of the films.

The article can be found here
Nov 17, 23:34 by Abby Goldsmith
Very cool article.

I think that each genre has a stereotype associated with it, but the best films (and TV, books, games, etc.) transcend genre. We hear people say that Battlestar Galactica "isn't really scifi" because they're partially right--the show is part scifi, part adventure, part drama, part thriller. It's too bad that people associate scifi with the worst pulp from the 50s, but maybe that's changing in recent years.

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