The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951), or It’s The End of The World As We Know It, And I Feel More Than Fine

17 02 2009
I remember a robot, but not a giant hand covering the earth...

I remember a robot, but not a giant hand covering the earth...

Salutations, moviegoers! Today’s movie was requested on the ‘Your Recommendations’ section by anon, which I think are probably his initials (Antonio Nuvia Omar-Nuñez? Ashton Neville Orson Northingshire? Have I hit the nail on the head yet?). Anyway, this gentleman suggested a real gem. Science fiction is a favorite genre of mine, and it is one of the reasons I found my love for movies. I have always been touched by originality, and sci-fi has constantly innovated its style and approach throughout its history. The fantastic still has the power to move me, if done correctly. Though I’m now an old fuddy-duddy and a FILM SNOB, I still have quite a soft spot for the futuristic template, and no matter how ridiculous and pathetic the premise is, when a sci-fi movie starts up, I have no choice but to finish it. There was no heavily resisted urge for me to turn off today’s film though. The Day The Earth Stood Still is a milestone within its own genre, because it is not only a great movie but it is one of the first American science fiction films to step beyond its own boundaries and say something serious about real-world issues.

The film starts right out of the shoot with a flying saucer landing on President’s Park in D.C.. Out of the saucer its pilot emerges, a very human-looking alien named Klaatu. He tells the people gathered that he comes from another world in peace on a mission of goodwill. He walks slowly from the saucer to the crowd with a device in his hand. Thinking it is a weapon, one nervous soldier gets fidgety and shoots Klaatu and breaks the device. When Klaatu falls to the ground a strange, menacing humanoid robot comes out and with a flash of its vision interface (it looks like a visor) he disintegrates all of the soldiers’ weaponry. Its name is Gort, and it is Klaatu’s back-up in case of human ignorance. The humans take him to see the President’s secretary, and Klaatu tells him to gather all the world’s leaders because he has  message for all the earth’s inhabitants to hear. The secretary balks at the idea and tells him that he is in protective custody and cannot leave. Klaatu of course, being slightly cleverer than a human being, escapes and disguises himself as a regular man, going under the moniker of “Mr. Carpenter”. He hides in a boarding house, and in an attempt to understand the human race better, he befriends a single mother, Helen, and her son, Bobby. When Helen’s boyfriend wishes to take her out on a date, just the two of them (oh yeah!), “Mr. Carpenter” offers to hang out with Bobby. Together, the two of them take a day trip around the D.C. area. As they wander, Klaatu finds a mix of both the repugnant and the redeeming qualities of man, and discovers our true essence. Just what is Klaatu’s message to the world? Can he find a way to reach all the human race? Will they listen?

This was certainly a groundbreaking film at the time. No sci-fi movie from America had really made much of a peep about any real issues. Sure, it taught us enough to be afraid of aliens (like I won’t run for days if I see one at my doorstep this morning), but we had not really learned to be afraid of ourselves yet. This is a movie about our penchant for self-destruction, and what that means in the age of atomic weaponry. The things we are capable are both awe-inspiring and deeply terrifying, and this was an attempt from one of the least respected genres of the time to say something deeper about the duality of our nature. Sure, at times the message is lost in the human dialog scenes, and sometimes the Christian platitudes are simply atrocious, but it is the grandfather of all the socially-conscious sci-fi films that followed, and it deserves to be viewed with fresh eyes.

The performances are pretty good, for the most part. Michael Rennie in the role that made him famous (in America) is great as Klaatu. He seems genuinely concerned with us, and what we have done to each other. Billy Gray is Bobby, and he is a generic “Oh, gee golly willickers!” kid from the 50’s who is just lovable enough to not be annoying. Patricia Neal is Helen, and she is good as the hapless single mother. She and Michael Rennie had a good rapport together; I personally hoped that Helen and Klaatu would get together at some point and make hideous alien-human hybrid children. Hell, it might happen at the end. I won’t ruin the surprise for you.

The special effects are way ahead of this movie’s time. The days without digital technology, when if you wanted a giant robot it was either a matte painting in the distance or a forced perspective guy in a suit. This giant robot is the latter, although the suit is admittedly large. The saucer effects are great for the time, when the idea of a spacecraft was still being formed in the collective consciousness of America. It looks so damn sleek and smooth. And look for the weapon effects early on in the film; they are not too shabby at all for 1951!

Director Robert Wise is either the worst or best director in the world, depending on who you ask. I lean towards best, but I would not say THE best. Some people think he is a hack and disregard his work on West Side Story and The Haunting as being all show and no content. And some people think that movies like this are the way all movies should be directed. I will agree that his style has no real artistic value, that he is mainly a showman. But as an admirer of the craft, you have to give it up for this guy. This movie LOOKS great, and it is directed with the poise you can only get from a showman. The way the actors look up close, the purposeful dialog, the smooth gray imagery surrounding the saucer; all these things culminate in a movie that lets the writers write and lets this director direct. He is no auteur, to be sure, but give him a hand for this one guys! The man edited CITIZEN KANE!!!! That has to count for something!

So I definitely recommend this one. After the lukewarm remake that just came out recently (yes, I saw it; I am not down with “The Monkeybone Persuasion” and am okay with bashing movies based on reputation) the sci-fi community at large needs a catharsis. I think it deserves to be called a classic, and I hope this helps at least one person to go out and rent this film. I give The Day The Earth Stood Still 8 1/2 hideous alien-human hybrid children out of 10!

See you tomorrow, for yet ANOTHER reader recommendation, Baraka!

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