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John Whitehead's Commentary

The Meaning of Life: Where Klaatu and E.T. Meet

John Whitehead
In 1947, "flying saucers"--a description coined by the media following pilot Kenneth Arnold's famous June 24 sighting of nine disk-shaped objects over the Cascade Mountains in Washington--began to be seen in ever-increasing numbers across the United States. And in July 1947, the infamous Roswell incident furthered the notion that the country faced a possible invasion from outer space. Thus, it was no surprise when Hollywood quickly capitalized on the craze.

It was 55 years ago, and I was only five years old. The year was 1951 and my father, clasping my fingers in his large hand, took me to see The Day the Earth Stood Still. This film helped legitimize what was allegedly happening in the real world, except that its alien invasion was couched in a very old story.

In fact, the theme of this film, as the Overlook Film Encyclopedia notes, "mirrors the birth, death and resurrection of Christ." And Paul Meehan in his book Saucer Movies writes that this film "is a modern day passion play, with Klaatu playing Christ and Gort (read: God) playing angry Jehovah of the Old Testament." The Day the Earth Stood Still has as well an allegorical flavor that pervades films since 1951.

The story involves an alien planetary federation that disapproves of Earth's nuclear bomb testing and dispatches Klaatu and his robot, Gort, to warn Earth nations to stop their aggression or the planet will be blown apart. The duo land in Washington, D.C., in an impressive flying saucer with this awesome message.

Klaatu, as the prince of peace, descends from the saucer with a cylinder in his hand. A trigger-happy soldier, believing it to be a weapon, fires at Klaatu, smashing the cylinder, which we soon find out is a gift of peace--the cure for cancer--that is destroyed by the soldier's bullet.

Thereafter, Klaatu escapes, assumes the alias of Mr. Carpenter (remember Jesus' trade?) and hides among earthlings to learn more about them in the hopes of convincing them that love, peace and harmony among people and nations is the best path for humanity to follow. Klaatu is later gunned down as a false prophet. But Gort, in the confines of their spacecraft, resurrects Klaatu. The resurrected Klaatu then gives a final message of peace (laced with a vague threat of annihilation) to a host of diplomats and scientists assembled at his saucer. The film ends with Klaatu ascending Christ-like to his federation. Indeed, a feeling of genuine religious awe pervades The Day the Earth Stood Still--a sense of apocalyptic miracles in the age of science.

But many films of every genre have used the Christ-theme and/or Christian mysticism to underlay the storyline--such as Shane (1953), Cool Hand Luke (1967), Taxi Driver (1976), Amadeus (1984), U Turn (1997), The Matrix (1999), Hellboy (2004), Superman Returns (2006) and so on.

One of the most successful films to use the Christ theme was Steven Spielberg's E.T. (1982). When the film's screenwriter Melissa Mathison commented on the critics' reaction to the film, she cited various influences when she wrote the screenplay, adding: "And then there is the Christ-symbolism." Although she may not have intended it at first, Mathison, who was Catholic-school educated, noticed the similarities in the small extra-terrestrial living on earth: frightened, accepted, learning earth language and human communication, although with more knowledge and skills than the humans. Hunted, as was Christ, by the authorities, E.T., writes Peter Malone in Movie Christs and AntiChrists, "suffers, 'dies,' but by the mutual love for Eliot, he comes to a new life, rises, bequeaths his good will to his followers and ascends into the heavens."

Many of the great films that deal with the meaning of life in some way use the Jesus story as the model. This is for the simple reason that the Jesus story, properly understood, provides a source of hope through the catastrophe of death, followed by resurrection and new life.

J.R.R. Tolkien, author of Lord of the Rings, created a word to describe this--"eucatastrophe." The Greek word for "well" is eu. Thus, for Tolkien (and the Gospel writers) and for those who believe that the hope is in Christ, suffering, which is real and painful, is, nevertheless, a eucatastrophe--that is, a catastrophe that has positive ramifications. For example, the Christ figure suffers and undergoes a disaster, but the suffering finds meaning in some new life experience. And while this is a catastrophe, it is a eucatastrophe.

In this chaotic age, people are increasingly seeking something outside themselves to give order and meaning to their lives. While other art forms such as painting once tackled these questions, modern films like The DaVinci Code now address this search. Inevitably, this includes the subject of God. And in today's world, film may be the most suitable forum for a discussion of religion, God and the meaning of life.
ABOUT JOHN W. WHITEHEAD

Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president The Rutherford Institute. His books Battlefield America: The War on the American People and A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State are available at www.amazon.com. He can be contacted at johnw@rutherford.org. Nisha Whitehead is the Executive Director of The Rutherford Institute. Information about The Rutherford Institute is available at www.rutherford.org.

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