I recently watched the movie The Day The Earth Stood Still (2008) a remake of the classic 1951 movie of the same name. It's themes can be seen to be about the very real anxiety during the opening of the cold war of nuclear annihilation. An unusual aspect of the story is it deals with a situation where the "adversary" cannot be beaten. The humans aren't going to fight the way out of the situation with pluck and resolve. They have no chance. Humans aren't really even able to negotiate, because they have nothing to negotiate with. In the original movie it seems more like the alien comes to believe that the humans are worth being given another chance. In the remake there is a lot of pleading and being asked to be given a chance because "we can change".
The remake introduces the idea of when humans are most likely to do the right thing is when we are at the precipice. The precipice here would be when faced with a catastrophe we show our best side and knuckle down to do what is right and needed. At stake in the movie is the environment. The aliens are here to save the Earth, which humans are destroying. The Earth is described as one of the few planets that can support complex life, and the alien civilizations who surround earth can't let man destroy it. Therefore man has to go.
Leaving aside that the remake is pale imitation of the original, and the kid is about the most irritating I've seen in a movie, what are we to make of themes?
I'm not sure we would perform particularly well at the precipice. I'd also claim that the precipice concept is a little broken when it comes to the environment.
Lets take climate change. It's a situation largely caused by man, which could lead to millions of people dying. Millions more having to relocate. There will likely be wars and suffering aplenty. It could wipe out whole ecosystems like the great barrier reef. It could wipe out many many species. It could make many parts of the world uninhabitable. It could be seen as a precipice, but not one we are standing at the edge of, but one in the distance we are driving toward at faster and faster speed in a car with no brakes.
Currently we don't seem to be living up to the hype. Humanities response writ large could be described as mostly denialism. Even when year by year, we see scientists predictions closely matching the reality, and increasingly ferocious weather situations and problems. Making it ever more obvious the threat is real and that the denialism was just that.
Which is perhaps problematic, because it's exactly the kind of things the aliens seem to be worried about, but the "precipice" idea doesn't apply. It seems as if in situations where the catastrophe is far enough in the future, doing nothing is the option of choice and when we are at the precipice, it's too late because we are being pushed off it by our prior ambivalence.
Perhaps because its not imminent (I mean we are arguably in it now) is why man has yet to have stepped up to the challenge? Actually I'm not even sure about that. The whole pandemic situation has made me have to really reconsider humanity in general. In the past I have thought and argued, that most people most of the time try and do the right thing. I would watch disaster movies, and then complain at the end the way many people behaved was totally unrealistic. People would often make things worse, for them and the people around them and for no good reason or often just bizarre or stupid reasons. That just seemed dumb.
Now through the lens of how many people behaved during the pandemic, it seems pretty plausible. A surprising amount of people do behave like this in difficult situations. They do act with nihilism towards others and themselves, when faced with the most mundane of inconveniences.
How would people behave when facing an imminent catastrophe? I don't know. I do think it's a bit of a leap to assume they will always make the changes that are needed in such a situation.
At the end of the movie, the alien decides humans are worth saving "they have another side". I'm not sure what that other side is that's so amazing, because it mostly seems to be lots of pleading and perhaps (gasp) caring for your family. Or something. The alien said that they could save humans, but there would be a cost. The alien gave it's life. Humans lost electricity. I guess diesel and steam engines are back... but that would be humanitarian and environmental catastrophe. So yay?
Something that is also disconcerting, is that there is plenty of pleading "we will change", but there is no commitment or idea of what that change might be. Perhaps the idea is taking away electricity does "make the change". If so it wasn't humans who made a change but the aliens who forced the change on us.