Evidently, director Robert Wise wasn’t aware of “Christian parallels” as he filmed The Day the Earth Stood Still (TCM Must-See Sci-Fi, p. 52). But he’s one of the few, it seems, who haven’t at least considered whether Klaatu (Michael Rennie), the messenger from the heavens at the movie’s heart, is a Christ figure.
Points of contact are plentiful. My personal favorite? Klaatu moves among humanity in the form of a man named “Carpenter” (see Mark 6.3) for whom closed doors are no barrier to entry (John 20.19, 26).
But Klaatu’s death and “resurrection” doesn’t save humanity, as Christians believe Jesus’ does. The Earth is no better off after Klaatu leaves than it was before he came. (Granted, some would no doubt say this fact is yet another parallel between Klaatu and Christ.)
Might seeing The Day the Earth Stood Still as a Pentecost story be more valuable?
If we want to map this movie onto a biblical narrative, the story of the first Christian Pentecost presents itself as a good choice. Why?
1. Things really get going with a widely visible “miracle.”
I say “miracle” because Klaatu’s half-hour neutralization of the world’s electricity isn’t supernatural. It’s only so in the sense of Clarke’s Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
But, like the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost as narrated in Acts 2, what Klaatu sends upon the Earth is a deed of power sufficiently dramatic to amaze and astonish the planet’s diverse population.
The crowd in Jerusalem that Pentecost was smaller (though still several thousand strong) than the crowds we see in The Day the Earth Stood Still. But it did represent the Earth’s varied peoples, listed in a catalog of nations that threaten to tangle preachers’ and lectors’ tongues (Acts 2.9-11).
Through his “sign”—”something dramatic, but not destructive”—Klaatu gets the world to give his message a hearing, as God does through the sign in Acts 2.
2. Everything hinges on speaking and hearing a new language.
Granted, the Jerusalem crowd doesn’t see any spectacle. They didn’t witness the divided tongues of fire dancing over the disciples’ heads (2.3). Instead, they all heard these men and women from Galilee speaking the world’s languages, as the Holy Spirit empowered them to speak (2.4, 11-12).
In The Day the Earth Stood Still, Klaatu worries, with good reason, what Gort—his eight-foot tall robot companion with laser-beam eyes—might do if he, Klaatu, is harmed. He teaches Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) what to say to Gort in that instance: “Klaatu barada nikto.”
It’s a good thing he does. After Gort melts his way free from the “KL93” substance in which the U.S. Army has encased him and vaporizes some soldiers, Helen speaks this phrase and stops Gort from destroying the world, as Klaatu said the robot could.
Helen learns and recites Klaatu’s “tongue” phonetically. Neither she nor the audience know what these strange new words mean. Acts 2 doesn’t tell us whether the inspired disciples understood what they were saying that Pentecost. But, as Gort heard and responded to a message in his and Klaatu’s own language, the people in Jerusalem hear and respond (though not all positively, 2.13) to proclamations of God’s powerful deeds in their own languages.
Early in The Day the Earth Stood Still, we hear many of the Earth’s languages in radio coverage of Klaatu’s arrival: Hindi, French, both British and American English. And Klaatu tells Mr. Harley (Frank Conroy) that he and the ones from whom he comes “learned your languages” through monitoring Earth’s media broadcasts. As in Acts 2, humanity’s linguistic diversity must be overcome so people can hear an urgent, potentially salvific message. Klaatu uses alien technology to do so. God uses the Spirit to bypass the linguistic confusion of Babel (Genesis 11.9).
3. Humanity is left with a vocation to pursue.
Again, Klaatu’s arrival from the stars, sojourn among humanity, death, and “resurrection” don’t change the Earth’s situation by the film’s end. (His “resurrection” is, like that of Lazarus and others in Scripture, only a return to life “for a limited period,” because absolute “power of life and death” is “reserved to the Almighty Spirit.” Did religious piety or the Hays Code lead to this downplaying of Klaatu’s revival?)
Of course, Klaatu’s interaction with certain individuals—a small and diverse band of followers, we might say—changed their lives. It’s hard to imagine Helen or her son Bobby (Billy Gray), or Professor Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe), living the rest of their days unchanged by their encounters with Klaatu.
But large-scale, global change? In the speech he gives before he “ascends” into the heavens the same way we saw him came (Acts 1.11), Klaatu makes it clear that kind of transformation depends upon the human race itself:
Like Moses, Klaatu sets before the people “the choice of life and good, or death and evil” (Deuteronomy 30.15). Like Peter on Pentecost, Klaatu makes the case for new life, urging the people not so much to save themselves from a corrupt generation (Acts 2.40), but to save the generation itself.
Unlike the biblical messengers—Moses, Peter, Christ—Klaatu is not concerned with humanity for its own sake. While he wanted to “become familiar with the basis for [humanity’s] strange, unreasoning attitudes,” he does not present himself as humanity’s savior. He has not come to usher in a messianic age; instead, he comes from such an age, already being lived by other worlds elsewhere in the greater galaxy.
Granted, this galactic utopia is enforced by the constant threat of annihilation from robotic sentries like Gort—but the larger point stands. The rest of the universe, Klaatu claims, knows peace, and cannot tolerate any threat of aggression, least of all from worlds like Earth.
Despite these differences from the Christian kerygma, we can hear echoes, in Klaatu’s message, of Peter’s Pentecost plea, “Save yourselves.” Christian theology teaches salvation is a gift, but it also remembers the importance of our response to salvation.
For Christians, the story of the first Pentecost is, in the end, a story about Jesus Christ, risen and present through the Holy Spirit. And Christians understand any response we make to him depends, in some way, upon him.
Even so, the emphasis in the Pentecost story is on such a response. The Pentecost proclamation is that new life and belonging in a new age that is already underway is possible. But the decision to embrace or reject it rests with us.