Seeing the Saviour in the Stars: Religion, Conformity, and the Day the Earth Stood Still

By Cowan, Douglas E. | Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Seeing the Saviour in the Stars: Religion, Conformity, and the Day the Earth Stood Still


Cowan, Douglas E., Journal of Religion and Popular Culture


He lay as if asleep, on his face the look of godlike nobility that had caused some of the ignorant to think him divine.

(Harry Bates, "Farewell to the Master")

This Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder. Your choice is simple: join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration.

(Klaatu, The Day the Earth Stood Still)

[1] But for the fact that Darryl F. Zanuck, then head of 20th Century-Fox, offered contract director Robert Wise a script based loosely on "Farewell to the Master," Harry Bates' short story about first contact might have vanished into the dustbin of history, forgotten like so many thousands of other pulp offerings from the golden age of science fiction. It is not a particularly good story, not good enough, apparently, even to warrant mention on the cover of Astounding when it appeared in October 1940. That honour went to A.E. van Vogt's now-classic tale, "Slan." Unlike "Slan," though, "Farewell to the Master" was brought to the silver screen as The Day the Earth Stood Still, and, though it appeared to mixed reviews at the time, it has emerged as one of the most influential science fiction films of all time. In 1951, it was awarded a Golden Globe for "Best Film Promoting International Understanding," while later that year the Ninth World Science-Fiction Convention honoured it as a "meritorious and outstanding achievement in the field of Science-Fiction Motion Pictures." It ranks number eighty-two on the American Film Institute's list of 100 Most Thrilling American Films, and one of its iconic images-the alien Klaatu first emerging from his spaceship-graces the cover of the 1997 edition of Bill Warren's monumental history of 1950s science fiction cinema, Keep Watching the Skies! (1982). According to a 1997 survey, it is among the five films most often used in university and college courses in science fiction studies (Kuhn 1999, 1). From the music of Ringo Starr to the 1970s rock group, Klaatu, from intertextual references that still appear in science fiction cinema to the still-mysterious mantra, "Gort! Klaatu barada nikto," Robert Wise's The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) has invaded popular culture in a way matched by only a handful of science fiction films.

[2] Two principal issues underpin my consideration of the film here. First, since a significant number of popular and academic critics interpret the main character, Klaatu (Michael Rennie), as a Christ-figure, and the Klaatu story (either implicitly or explicitly) as an averted apocalypse based on a gospel allegory, I ask a relatively simple question: Is this a reasonable reading of the film? And, if not, why not? Second, and more importantly, since, as I will indeed suggest, a "Klaatu as Christ" interpretation of The Day the Earth Stood Still is unreasonably eisegetic rather than textually exegetic--it reads the Christ-figure into the film rather than out of it--what does this tell us about the sedimentary process of interpretation, and the popular will to colonize cultural products in the name of a particular theology? That is, if it isn't a Christ allegory, a cautionary tale that relies on thinly-veiled gospel analogies, why do so many people think it is, and what might that tell us about the relationship between dominant mythologies and emergent popular culture? Since the story itself is so well-known, I offer only a relatively brief synopsis here, and will consider other aspects in more detail below.

The Day the Earth Stood Still

[3] Amid panicked reports of an unidentified flying object buzzing around the world at over four thousand miles an hour, an enormous flying saucer lands on the Mall in Washington, D.C. For two hours it sits, while crowds of onlookers gather and squads of infantry supported by tanks and artillery watch nervously. Suddenly, an opening appears and Klaatu emerges. "We have come to visit you in peace and with good will," he says, but he is shot the moment he approaches the soldiers and attempts to offer a gift. …

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