***Warning: this post is jam-packed with spoilers for both versions of the film***
In the original 1951 version, the war-like people of earth began venturing into outer space – potentially endangering the well-being of other species/planets in the the future. Therefore, a representative of the collective of aliens came to Earth seeking to prevent humans from spreading violence outside of their planet. He gave them a choice: allow metal policemen to keep the peace or Earth will be destroyed.
In the 2008 version, the aliens think humans are polluting too much and decide to do an Old Testament style plague of electronic insects (not locusts, unfortunately) to cleanse the world of the sinful species. Kill the humans, save the world.
The themes from each version reflect society’s most prevalent fears at the time of production. In the Cold War era, people feared the consequences of of a possible nuclear war – the specter of Earth’s total annihilation as a result of human violence. In modern times, pollution and general apathy toward the environment threatens a different kind of Armageddon; a world-wide Easter Island, so to speak. Since an invasion of metal policemen is rather an extreme solution to violence on Earth, perhaps the 2008 Day the Earth Stood Still was an attempt an theorizing what might be a similarly extreme solution from a environmentalist perspective. The main difference is that, in the 2008 version, Klaatu did not come to Earth to give humans a second choice to death. Were I the writer, however, I probably would have opted for a solution more creative than “let’s kill all the humans.” Makes me think Bender from Futurama wrote the first draft. Gort did look a little like Bender. Hmm… But I digress.
Most people probably don’t remember the oh so trendy label “environmental terrorist” anymore (invented by environmentally unfriendly corporations to describe those who carried out actions destructive to corporate machinery/employees in order to defend nature from loggers, chemical dumpers, etc.). Eventually, as I recall, the meaning of that term was reversed and it was subsequently replaced with the term “eco-terrorist.” The violent invaders in the new Day the Earth Stood Still are certainly a far cry from the essentially pacifistic aliens of the original version, but are they really eco-terrorists from space?
In the original version, the shutting off of all electric devices was used as a show of power to get the world’s attention. However, it excluded hospitals and aircraft in flight to prevent unnecessary death/injury. In the modern version, the outage was enacted to prevent the metal insect swarm from devouring all people and manmade structures on the planet, hospitals and aircraft be hanged. This in addition to the two helicopter explosions and the use of two cars as a people tenderizer. Admittedly, people were just as violent in both versions, but the aliens sure got meaner. So, what was accomplished by this exercise in ambivalence (save the planet, kill all humans… okay, maybe neither)?
In the highly ambiguous end of the movie, no problems were solved, no solutions were offered, and no decisions were made by the humans to reform their ways. Klaatu simply decided to leave the planet after watching a mother and son cry over the death of their respective husband/father. Was it the filmmakers’ intent to imply that the mother/son’s empathy toward each other might somehow translate to empathy for the environment and non-human inhabitants of the planet, or were they implying that watching such an emotional display melted the icy heart of the (somewhat reluctantly) murderous environmentalist and caused him to spare humanity out of a newfound empathy for… something related to human misery? Ultimately, were the filmmakers pessimistically implying that environmentalists have somehow lost their humanity? Or were they implying that humans could only keep from destroying the environment if they gave up all knowledge of science/technology and became cave men/women again? Did the filmmakers run out of time and patience and just end the movie because they were tired of working on it? That last one seems the most likely. Oh well. At least the computer graphics were pretty, right?