Wednesday, April 13, 2011

K is for Klaatu

When I was a young boy, early Saturday afternoons were filled with science fiction and horror movies from the 1950s and 1960s.  After playing outside much of the morning, I'd hurry home before Sinister Cinema and Monster Matinee could take to the airwaves.  Godzilla, The Creature from The Black Lagoon, Dracula and rampaging flocks of Hitchcock's birds couldn't be stopped until just before the credits rolled, but they could be interrupted by commercial breaks and a hurried dash to the bathroom or kitchen.

One of my favorite films was the 1951 classic The Day the Earth Stood Still.

My friends were bored with the movie (too much talking, not enough monsters) but I loved every minute of it.  The suspense; the larger questions about our society; it was “brain candy” for this six year old boy.

As I lay in bed that night, having watched the movie for the first time earlier in the day, I remember repeating over and over the words that would stop Gort if the need ever arose.

"Klaatu... barada... nikto..."

It wasn't a childlike fear that Gort would come into my bedroom late one night, but the threat held in the speech given by the human-appearing Klaatu near the end of the film.
I am leaving soon, and you will forgive me if I speak bluntly. The universe grows smaller every day, and the threat of aggression by any group, anywhere, can no longer be tolerated. There must be security for all, or no one is secure. Now, this does not mean giving up any freedom, except the freedom to act irresponsibly. Your ancestors knew this when they made laws to govern themselves and hired policemen to enforce them. We, of the other planets, have long accepted this principle. We have an organization for the mutual protection of all planets and for the complete elimination of aggression. The test of any such higher authority is, of course, the police force that supports it. For our policemen, we created a race of robots. Their function is to patrol the planets in spaceships like this one and preserve the peace. In matters of aggression, we have given them absolute power over us. This power cannot be revoked. At the first sign of violence, they act automatically against the aggressor. The penalty for provoking their action is too terrible to risk. The result is, we live in peace, without arms or armies, secure in the knowledge that we are free from aggression and war. Free to pursue more... profitable enterprises. Now, we do not pretend to have achieved perfection, but we do have a system, and it works. I came here to give you these facts. It is no concern of ours how you run your own planet, but if you threaten to extend your violence, 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. We shall be waiting for your answer. The decision rests with you. 
I was never sure which scared me more - a race of robots that held the universe under its authoritarian thumb or the fact that our own planet seemed absolutely incapable of setting aside "the threat of aggression" and violence.  After all, both represent harm to innocents based on the choices of a few.

It's a question I was never able to completely answer.


  1. You have given me something to think about! I love how movies, books, and music can present an idea that leads to much deeper thinking!! :)

  2. I'm glad I'm not reading this before bedtime! It's amazing when we look back at what scared us when we were kids and how different movies are today. Very well done. Julie

  3. I see what you mean - I'm not sure which is the more scary either :-)
    Thanks for the trip back to my childhood, when I hid behind the sofa, every Saturday, from the daleks (and that's a looong trip ...)

  4. I was a big fan of the Monster Matinee too. I loved the original The Day the Earth Stood Still that I refused to go see the remake.

    The other Klaatu I enjoyed was the band. :-)

  5. I can't believe you watched these movies when you were 6! It's great watching these today, because the technology is so cheesy, as is the dialogue. I love the original War of the Worlds, when the minister walked toward the machine, reading the bible, and just before he was vaporized, the lead actress yells "Uncle!" I thought that was so funny. We used to watch Creature Feature on Saturday afternoons to get our horror fix. We could handle the scarey movies better during the day.