This past Tuesday, December 19, 2023, SETI sponsored a movie night, showing the 1951 film, "The Day the Earth Stood Stil." SETI astronomer Seth Shostak and I offered commentary, interpretation, and something reminiscent of humor. Then I posted on Patheos, "Are UFOs our Celestial Saviors?"
In my humble opinion, only two Hollywood films rank as authentic UFO films, The 1951 version of "The Day the Earth Stood Still" counts and is numero uno, to be sure. So also does Steven Spielberg's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" in 1977. Spielberg remarked once that he had originally intended to produce a sci-fi thriller. But, after talking to J. Allen Hynek and Jacques Vallee, he realized that the UFO experience is a religious experience. Hence the descent from heaven to Devil's Tower in the apocalyptic crescendo.
I note that the flying saucer in "The Day the Earth Stood Still" symbolized perfection. The round shape, according to phsychologist Carl Jung connotes perfection. So also does the craft's door. When it closes, one cannot see the crack. An engineering marvel. Finally, even a diamond drill cannot make a dent in the spaceship's surface. This signals to the movie goer that extraterrestrials are more advanced than we are in technology.
The reminds me of a pioneering story in this genre, Jack London's "The Red One" of 1916. The space ship in London's story is oval and pearl like. The irridescent pearl quality and beautiful surface connotes, to London at least, extraterrestrial perfection in the form of advanced technology.
Might it be an overstatement to suggest that technological perfection descending from the heavens evokes our religious sensibilities? Is heaven sending earth a message through UFO prophecy?
Klaatu's Memorable Speech
Let me remind you of Klaatu's speech at the climax of "The Day the Earth Stood Still." Our visitor from another planet, Klaatu, found that earth's political leaders are so beset with rivalry that they are incapable of preventing the dropping of another atomic weapon. Who, then, could muster an international community committed to world peace? Who could grasp the dire threat that nuclear arms testing poses to our earth's future? Who could envision a future where earthlings might tie a bomb to a rocket and explode it on an off-Earth planet?
The world's politicians? No. The world's religions? No. There is only one worldwide community committed to both truth and peace. And that community is...is...is...the scientific community. So, Klaatu addresses an international assembly of scientists from the foot of his flying saucer. What does Klaatu say?
"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 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.... if you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burnt-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."
The UFOnaut Message
This is much more than merely a memorable line from a movie. Klaatu's speech reverberated for decades through the widely misunderstood UFO phenomenon. In various variants, it became THE message we earthlings were intended to gain from extraterrestrial visitations.
An interweaving took place over multiple decades between this fiction and the authentic experiences reported by experiencers of the first, second, and third kind. Political, scientific, and religious dimensions belong to the cultural meaning of UFO history from 1947 to the present. This 1951 movie, though fiction, has become an icon providing us with insight to the larger phenomenon itself.
Scientists Studying UAP
Most important for SCU, of course, is to remember the early denial by scientists that anything important was happening in the UFO phenomenon. Today we applaud a turn around. We greet with applause the new interest in recent years on the part of the scientific community to gather and assess whatever data is available regarding UAP (Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena). Hooray!
The scientific counterpart to Klaatu's message is articulated by SCU's Larry Hancock. He notes what was happening when this movie first appeared in theaters. Beginning in 1947, UFOs “focused reconnaissance targeting both strategic military bases and key atomic warfare facilities” (Hancock 2017, 381). The world was alive between 1947 and 1952 with sitings of strange craft examining our capacity on earth to manufacture and deliver atomic weapons. That's not fiction, even if it gets interpreted by fiction.
UAP concern with the building up of a nuclear arsenal continued.
“The UFOs appeared to intentionally make themselves visible, to telegraph their intentions, to probe as far as the actual locations of the bombs or warheads – and then depart, sometimes in a highly visible fashion, other times very stealthily. Subjectively such behavior has more the look and feel of ‘messaging’ than any serious military activity” (Hancock 2017, 458).”
Again, what did Klaatu say? "If you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burnt-out cinder."
Whether authentic or fictional, perhaps this is a message worth listening to.
-- Ted Peters
Larry Hancock, Unidentified: The National Intelligence Problem of UFOs (Southgate TX: Treatise, 2017) 381.