Peer reviewed: The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)
Based on what I’d picked up by media osmosis about the film, I didn’t expect much from The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008). Also, a friend described it as “stupid”. It’s perhaps for that reason – expectations calibrated to the ground state – that I was so pleasantly surprised by the movie. There is actually a lot of good science in DESS, despite the inherited conceit of Gort the Giant Robot. I liked this movie a lot, because for the most part its science was plausible… and only later did I find out SETI’s Seth Shostak was a science adviser on the film. The scriptwriters also found the key that unlocks the heart of many geeks… beautiful movie stars playing scientists who do not make a hash of either the content or the pronunciation of their sciencey lines.
Spoilers follow, so be warned.
She had me at “Thiobacillus“.
Thiobacillus is a genus of acid-loving extremophile bacteria that require conditions approximating battery acid in order to multiply, and was the first word spoken in DESS. Connelly’s character described these geologic extremophiles pretty accurately. Those throwaway lines – which in a lesser writer’s hands would have been meaningless sci-garble – were then exceeded in wonderfulium by a followup line from one of Connelly’s students, which accurately summarized what Deinococcus radiodurans is (it’s the most radiation-tolerant bacterium known to science) and how it was discovered. I was incredulous that a movie astrobiologist could be written to sound so cogent without having crazy hair or some weird character tick. My delight in having said character played by Connelly, who is, herself, on a consistently high-velocity asymptotic approach to perfection, is understandably acute.
The plot whisks Connelly off to join a team of scientists conscripted by the US military to address an imminent extraterrestrial threat. Said threat is an object moving through our solar system at 0.1 c, or 3×10^7 meters per second. The film was specific about the velocity, even including units…. and thankfully no one on screen piped up at that point to shriek “that’s a tenth the speed of light!”. Which it is. Anyway, this thing whips into the solar system on a hyperbolic collision course that has it colliding with Earth… specifically Manhattan, NYC…. in less than two hours. This is one of the few weak points in the movie’s science: how was the thing noticed so quickly? In real life, an interstellar object on such a high-velocity approach would never be seen until the moment of impact… and then only briefly.
The alien object is described as shooting in from interstellar space on a trajectory entering our solar system’s ecliptic plane somewhere beyond Jupiter’s distance from the Sun… >5 Astronomical Units (AU) of distance. A light-hour is 7.2 AU, and this thing is moving at 10% light speed… so it would take at least 10 hours to reach us from just outside Jupiter’s orbit, if it traveled in a straight line. On a hyperbolic course it would take longer, but its ETA would still be in the tens-of-hours range. According to the film, the whole US military is mobilized to converge on the projected impact point… with <48 hours notice that might be a bit unrealistic, but military logistics isn’t my bag, so I can’t say.
Anyway, the conscripted science team quickly point out that a missile the size of an asteroid moving at 10% lightspeed would effectively snuff out all life on Earth, and possible shatter the body of the planet itself. It could hit in NYC, the Vatican (one can dream, can’t one?) or the Falklands… in any case life on Earth is totally erased. This fact makes concrete barriers around the White House somewhat pointless. Anyway, just before impact the object suddenly decellerates to hover over Central Park. In response, the US military surrounds the glowing, swirling sphere of alien technology with soldiers and artillery. Given that the alien ship managed to slow from 10% lightspeed to zero in approximately 1 second without incinerating the Earth with its decelleration exhaust, it’s unlikely howitzers would be any help. Perhaps the ship’s approach was intended by the aliens as a test of how smart we are…. a test we fail, in spades. As soon as the alien emissary Klaatu steps off the ship in a haze of light and approaches Connelly on foot, some Abu Ghraib graduate shoots him.
Much rushing about ensues, leading eventually to a revelation that the alien biped is really some kind of encounter suit/techno-placenta combo designed to gestate a human-looking herald… Klaatu as played by Reeves. Klaatu manages to escape with Connelly’s help from military torturers, but again with good science. Klaatu doesn’t beam out, or project a force field, or do anything particularly impossible. He appears to use a minimum of necessary force at all times, as if disdaining to exert too much effort to escape from the primitives.
The best parts of the movie for me were scenes making it clear how vastly superior such an alien visitation would be to our technology, and how utterly defenseless we’d be against it. At one point a Madeline Albright-type character (played by Kathy Bates) notes that in history when a superior technological culture met an inferior one, the inferior one would typically collapse… think Aztecs against Spaniards. The movie makes this point clear: to a culture adapted to cross interstellar space with ease, our most impressive military hardware would be quaint antiquities at best. Throughout the film, the aliens are attacked again and again by the puny humans, and each time they almost casually dismiss our efforts, using a minimum of force. Klaatu knocks down a couple of military gunships not with a phaser, but by reflecting targeting lasers to their sources and remodulating them to cause disabling electromagnetic interference. He doesn’t make a big deal of it, he just does it. Gort deals with missiles similarly – not by batting them aside with its giant hands but by taking over their targeting controls and sending them into nearby tanks…. with pinpoint alien accuracy. Predictably, the humans don’t get the message.
Ultimately, we learn that Klaatu is here to wipe out the human race to save Earth’s biodiversity. This isn’t the fuzzy envirobabble motivation it might sound like. Klaatu notes at one point that Earth is one of a very few worlds in the Galaxy that supports complex life – the “Rare Earth” hypothesis proposed by Peter Ward and Don Brownlee. In a universe where Rare Earth is true, complex biospheres become the most valuable commodity that exists. Life explores the possibility-space of self replication, with each species a unique assembly of characteristics and features that may not occur more than once per billion galaxies. Water is common in the universe, and so is rock, and so are stars. But each biosphere is unique, and literally irreplaceable. To a galaxy-spanning civilization the occurrence of complex life would represent an exceedingly rare resource of chemical diversity, naturally-occurring and time-tested biotechnology, and potential new forms of sentience. David Brin’s Uplift novels illustrate this concept nicely: in those books living worlds are jealously guarded, even to the point of being left “fallow” for eons, to give sufficient time to evolve new sentient species that can join Galactic civilization as client races. This may be science-fiction, but it’s also likely to end up being true, in one form or another.
How does Klaatu intend to destroy humanity? Not with bombs, which would sort of defeat the whole point of biodiversity protection, but with nanotechnology. Cliche? Not so fast. DESS makes the subtle point that an arbitrarily advanced civilization would probably not make an artificial distinction between technology and biology. Cells are, after all, naturally-evolved microbots. Ultimately, we may find that the most efficient way to organize machinery may be to build it out of constructed cells of some kind, with macroscopic form and function being malleable factors that can be recorded in cellular machine code and expressed as needed. In DESS, Gort deconstructs into a swarm of nanites that sweeps across the landscape and scours it of all human artifacts. Road signs erode in seconds, cannibalized by a teeming storm of tiny living machines.
The science of DESS’s nanite apocalypse is pretty strong, actually. The nanites need to fly, so they have wings. They look like insects, because insects have a time-tested and highly efficient body plan for swarming when they need to. Dolphins and fish resemble each other superficially due to the constraints of streamlining and hydraulics… the result is called convergent evolution… so why couldn’t alien microbots look like locusts? If they need to fly, eat quickly and breed, a locust model works pretty well. When the locust-bots are shown walking around on a microscopic scale, they leave a trail of gnawed metal beneath them…. which is exactly what they’d have to do, to gather mass for duplication. When the microbots attack macroscopic objects the first signs of destruction are etching traces, which spread and widen until the object is eroded to nothing. This is exactly how minerals weather in nature – by first becoming etched by fungal acids or microbial siderophores, then pitted, then fractured, then dissolved. In DESS the microbots move quickly and eat quickly, but human artifacts would actually make that possible. Iron and steel are out of chemical equilibrium with our oxygen atmosphere, and could be rapidly oxidized by techno-enzymes to yield energy as well as mass. The alien bugs could, in other words, use metal not only as body mass but as an energy supply (along with sunlight, presumably).
Overall I give DESS an A for its science, and also for making some interesting and subtle points about what a real alien visitation would likely entail… specifically, us watching what the aliens do and not being in a position to do a damn thing about it. It’s rare to get good science in a sci-fi movie. The Day the Earth Stood Still is an exception to that rule. Somebody needs to give Shostak an Oscar.