Earlier this year, we discussed the idea of a United States without nuclear energy. It’s a scary thought.
But also small potatoes: let’s talk big, let’s talk about a world without any energy. Occasionally, folks who take the Whole Earth Catalog a bit too seriously posit an energy-free world, but that’s because they do their energyless thing with energy all around them. For most people, the prospect is terrifying, an invitation to anarchy, shortened lives – horror.
Sapping the world’s energy has been used many times in movies and TV programs. The show Revolution (2012-2014) used it as its inciting event and the series then tried to unravel the mystery of what happened to the electricity – think Lost with megawatts. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951/2008)(both Rennie and Reeves editions) shows the humanoid alien peacenik easily able to shut down all energy sources. And lest we forget, nuclear energy has a small role too in this context. The most recent Godzilla (2014) showed giant insectoid creatures crushing on a Japanese facility to munch on something - energy? radiation? – whatever.
One of the first movies to describe this theme is Kronos (1956). It was made during a period when radiation-soaked giant bugs and people were all the rage, but with a difference. Kronos is a big, smooth cube-like structure that chugs along the landscape on hydraulic legs absorbing any energy it runs across – or that runs across it, including a hydrogen bomb.
It’s ideas are unusually provocative. Kronos is removing the basis for modern civilization, a genuinely frightening prospect. Since there is no way to do this outside the realm of fiction, it is striking that the movie imagines an abstract monster – a featureless cube – to do the dirty work. How do you fight something inscrutable that is doing something inscrutable? Kronos makes the concept of energy throb with, well, energy – it’s something worth fighting to the death to keep because life depends on it.
The aliens in Kronos teeter on the edge of knowable and unknowable. This is another great idea, if incompletely realized. Filmmakers such as Stanley Kubrick and Andrei Tarkovsky would expand upon it considerably in films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Solaris (1972), where the aliens’ motivations are never understood by the humans in the stories or even fully by the audiences experiencing the movies. In Kronos, the aliens can possess humans and speak English, but are never seen in native form – good for the low budget (no silly makeup) and also for heightening their unknowable quality.
The idea of something highly intelligent yet so “other” that it cannot be understood pushes on man’s conception of himself as master of his universe in tingly ways. We think we can harness energy, but we’re pikers compared to Kronos. Like the Solaris ocean or the 2001 monolith, Kronos does what it does without any thought for the pea-like humans engaging with it.
Is Kronos a good film? The dramatics are strictly of its era and the acting has intensity but with a decided b-movie edge – that it, emotion is conveyed bluntly and without much nuance. Most of the actors had played their share of aliens or the alien-plagued, so they knew the terrain and did not venture beyond it.
So, no – probably (the original) The Day the Earth Stood Still would get the nod as an all-around better 50s movie with striking sci-fi ideas. But Kronos at the least should occupy a special place in the hearts of the energy conscious. It takes what one considers precious and renders it fragile and finite. It then exploits its fragility to generate horror and distress. What more could you want?
Here’s a quote from Revolution that sums things up nicely:
We lived in an electric world. We relied on it for everything. And then the power went out. Everything stopped working. We weren't prepared. Fear and confusion led to panic. The lucky ones made it out of the cities. The government collapsed. Militias took over, controlling the food supply and stockpiling weapons. We still don't know why the power went out, but we're hopeful that someone will come and light the way.
Happy Halloween. Hope civilization doesn’t collapse on you over the weekend. In the meantime, you could do worse than a Kronos costume.