In preparation for a science fiction film class I teach, I recently watched the 1951 classic The Day The Earth Stood Still. The movie’s famous anti-war message is more than “still relevant.” In no way has our species taken up it’s call to peace. If the film’s premise were real, our benevolent alien overlords would have justifiably obliterated us long ago.
However, it is another of the movie’s themes that struck me as utterly prescient. The film is saturated with depictions of mass media. The motif is introduced in a montage sequence at the beginning and carries through to the end of the film. The mass media are implicated in rumor-mongering, inciting fear and panic, and encouraging personal greed, and virtually all forms of media are treated with such hostility. Viewing this film for the first time in our contemporary age of mass and social forms of communication, I could not help but wonder what this film says about the message of our media.
The film opens with a flying saucer landing in Washington DC and its occupant, Klaatu, emerging with a gift. He is, of course, promptly shot by a panicked soldier. In the hospital, Klaatu informs a representative of the President that he has a message that he must deliver to the entire world; the message cannot be given to individual actors on the world stage. The leaders of the world cannot agree on a forum, so Klaatu is held captive at Walter Reed Hospital, from which he escapes and mingles with the humans of Washington. He eventually finds support from a single-mother and her son, and is able to deliver his message to a group of scientists and other dignitaries: Earth’s development of atomic power has drawn the attention of a federation of worlds. In the interest of security for all, the federation has developed a race of all powerful robots that will destroy any individual world that threatens the others. Earth must choose: either give up its warlike ways or be destroyed by Gort, the famous silver robot.
The rather naive idealism of the film’s message is further complicated by its seeming unwillingness to confront the obvious contradiction in its call for peace; the peaceful utopia of inter-planetary brotherhood that Klaatu offers is constructed on the threat of total annihilation. Nonetheless, the movie’s message retains its power and still captures the imagination.
But as I said, I think the film’s contemporary significance is its scathing critique of the fear-inducing capacity of mass media. In Earth, Klaatu, so desperate to deliver his message of ultimate importance, discovers a world utterly saturated in communication media. This overabundance of communication is, ironically, partly the reason why he cannot spread his world-saving message.
The film opens with a radar operator discovering the alien ship’s otherworldly blip. A phone call to a military command center reports news of this paradigm-shifting arrival. Every movement the ship makes is communicated, electronically, in real time. The Messianic event is translated to panic and shared with radio announcers across the world, first in India, then Italy, then England, until it reaches the eager ears of Americans, who luxuriate in the hyperbolic message sold by the media.
From there, television and newspapers take over, entering every home and keeping the world hanging on a suspense-filled string.
Important to note is that the information spread like wildfire in these sequences is not useful. No message has yet been delivered. In that absence of certainty, the media sell panic, and the public voraciously buys it.
The dissemination of newspapers in the film offers a key insight. With his “extra extra read all about it” singsong, the newsboy’s siren-call has him quickly surrounded by readers, eagerly exchanging money for “news.”
Engaged citizens they are, but engaged in what? He collects their money and that is the image that should haunt us today. Just as then, our media is big business.
The same question applies exponentially to our consumption of news on social media. Like the subjects of a fictional alien invasion, we too are desperate for essays, tweets, hot takes, sick burns, Facebook posts, and cell phone videos of people shouting at us about our fears. Or rather selling us our fears.
Business is booming. We’re buried under an avalanche of information, and just like the people of The Day the Earth Stood Still, we’re missing the actual message.
The Sectarian Review Podcast is hosted by Danny Anderson, who is an Assistant Professor of English at Mount Aloysius College in Cresson, PA.