The Day the Earth Stood Still
Research Question: How do the apocalyptic tensions in the SF films Things to Come and The Day the Earth Stood Still reflect Sontag’s “Imagination of Disaster?”
Films: Things to Come, dir: William Cameron Menzies (UK, 1936).
The Day the Earth Stood Still, dir: Robert Wise (United States, 1951).
In terms of classic science fiction, William Cameron Menzies’ Things to Come and Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still stand firm as examples of the ways in which humanity used science fiction in film to explore the anxieties that came with things like war, apocalyptic destruction, and the possibility of death through our own command of technology. In Things to Come, a utopian vision of the future is created out of the ashes of war; in Day, aliens from another planet come to warn us of the dangers of war and divisions by national boundaries. Both of these works express fundamental tensions experienced by Americans in the mid-20th century, from the horrors of World War I and the Great Depression to the fears of industrialization and the Cold War. As Susan Sontag wrote in her essay “The Imagination of Disaster,” science fiction films like these are often identifies as allegories of modern life’s depersonalized nature and the specter of nuclear war.
The proposed paper will examine both films under the context of the points made in Sontag’s “Imagination of Disaster,” to pinpoint the ways in which they might fit into the specific context of apocalyptic tensions within SF films. I plan to first overview the ways in which Sontag’s essay describes these tensions, and then apply these criteria to Things to Come and Day the Earth Stood Still, respectively, using close textual analysis. I will then compare the two films to see whether or not they offer the same set of anxieties, and if they convey these themes in different ways through filmmaking.
Csicsery-Ronay, Istvan. "The Eye of Gort." Science Fiction Studies 41.2 (2014): 301-313.
Csicsery-Ronay, writing for Science Fiction Studies in 2014, discusses The Day the Earth Stood Still through a psychosexual, Freudian perspective, extending the Cold War metaphors to talk about the aesthetics of Gort’s death gaze and Klaatu’s unbound love for Helen. This will be a secondary source to further explore the “Imagination of Disaster” through a non-political lens, to lend variety to the film’s interpretative possibilities.
Eshaghi, Ehsaneh. "HG Wells's Science Fiction: The Cyborg Visual Dromological
Discourse." International Journal of Applied Linguistics and English Literature 4.1 (2015): 159-168.
Eshaghi, discussing the works of HG Wells, specifically discusses Things to Come as a way to express discourses of dromology, virtual reality, and the unique virtuality of cyborgs. This will be a secondary source through which to explore Things to Come through Sontag’s allegorical lenses, specifically the way cinema uses the ‘eye’ to peer into the future and the truth of mankind.
Levine, Michael, and William Taylor. "The Upside of Down: Disaster and the Imagination 50
Years On." M/C Journal 16.1 (2013).
Taylor and Levine discuss Sontag’s “The Imagination of Disaster,” and the different disasters we have come to fear as the years go on beyond the Cold War. This will be a secondary source to further link the Sontag text to universal allegories of science fiction.
Menzies, William Cameron (dir.). Things to Come. Perf. Raymond Massey, Ralph Richardson,
Cedric Hardwicke. United Artists, 1936. Film.
Menzies’ film adapts H.G. Wells’ science fiction novel to the screen, depicting a future Earth destroyed by war and slowly rebuilt into a technological utopia. This will be used as a primary source through which to discuss Sontag’s “Imagination of Disaster” as an example of SF illustrating people’s fears and anxieties about war, destruction and technology.
Sontag, Susan. "The imagination of disaster." Commentary 40.4 (1965): 42.
Acclaimed cultural critic Susan Sontag’s piece, published in 1965, discussed science fiction as a means to explore allegories of our discontentment with modern life and our fears at the spectre of war. I will use this as a primary source to explore the two films mentioned through these lenses, to understand how they reflect the anxieties of their time and culture.
Staiger, Janet. "Future noir: contemporary representations of visionary cities." East-West Film
Staiger, writing for East-West Film Journal, discusses visionary cities such as those found in Things to Come as a way to stave off or recover from the specific ‘imagination of disaster’ described by Sontag. This is a secondary source used to link Sontag’s ideas to Things to Come by expressing them through the specific architecture and social institutions found in the film.
Wise, Robert (dir.). The Day the Earth Stood Still. Perf. Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal, Hugh
Marlowe. 20th Century Fox, 1951. Film.
Robert Wise’s critically-acclaimed 1951 science fiction film acts as a cautionary tale about the dangers of the Cold War filtered through the fear of an alien invasion and our insignificance in the universe as a whole. This will be a primary source, compared with Things to Come through Sontag’s “Imagination of Disaster” to show the ways in which this film reflects those contemporary anxieties.