Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Day The Earth Stood Still

The Day the Earth Stood Still
Director: Robert Wise
Starring: Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal, Sam Jaffe, Billy Gray

I’m intrigued by the many different forms science fiction can take. There’s plenty of science fiction that’s lots of men in funny rubber suits playing funny rubber aliens, nothing more than battles with laser guns on silly Martian sets. On the other hand, I’ve seen a number of science fiction films that have zero special effects, zero makeup, zero costumes, but are absolutely still sci-fi because of an otherworldly premise. The best science fiction utilizes its otherworldly setup to bring home a message of humanity. The Day the Earth Stood Still indulges in special effects, but its point is tremendously clear: this is a message movie, through and through.

The nations of the world are all thrown into disarray when an alien spaceship is found to be circling the earth. After landing in Washington D.C., alien Klaatu (Rennie) and his huge robot Gort step off the ship, only to be immediately fired upon by the amassed military. Klaatu is taken to a hospital where he requests to speak to representatives from all countries in one meeting to warn them of an impending peril. Frustrated by the world’s inability to convene such a meeting, he escapes the hospital where he meets both a young widow (Neal), her son Bobby (Gray), and a scientist (Jaffe), and he again tries to pass his message on to them.

I’ve seen this film before, but as I was rewatching it, I was really struck with its message, much more so than on my first viewing. The Day the Earth Stood Still received a special Golden Globe award for “Best Film Promoting International Understanding,” and it’s nice that even in 1951, it was recognized for such. This is a film that cries out for peace. The main aggressor in the film is the US military, not the robot Gort or Klaatu himself. The film’s power has not been diminished by time, and it speaks a message that we still need to hear. At some point, we have to find a way to come together as a world, to agree on certain key points. Not everything; perhaps we’ll never agree on everything. But as we hurtle forward with technology and armaments, we must, at some point, put aside old differences and agree on some fundamental issues.

It’s sad. This is a sad flick. It’s sad because it speaks the truth. If an alien spaceship landed, the first thing we’d do is probably aim as many weapons at it as we could. The radio and television broadcasts start as asking for calm, but as the film goes on, they turn into highly colored calls for the capture and death of the escaped “space man,” for eradication of him, because he is clearly dangerous. While listening to this, all I could think of was MSNBC versus FoxNews. Such muckraking broadcasts are normal for us today; if we were ever approached by alien life, I can easily visualize such vitriol being committed to the airwaves. As stupidly as the government and military responds to Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still, I am convinced that in the 60 years since this movie was made, we have moved further away from peace and understanding, and are more deeply divided and petty. Our reaction today would be, if not worse, then at the very least, the same. And that just makes me sad.

Nothing like The Day the Earth Stood Still to get you depressed on a Saturday night.

Alright, so now that I’ve bummed myself out again, I want to talk a little more about the movie and less about its message. For a fifties sci-fi flick, there are far fewer special effects than you would expect, and I rather like that. Klaatu, for example, the “space man” from another planet, looks human. Rennie wears zero alien makeup for the role. In making him look human, we are not distracted by “the funny man in the rubber suit.” His words are given more power because he looks human. I really like that particular choice the film made. There is a minimum of silly costumes (although they are not totally absent), and the alien spaceship has a sleek simplicity to it. In short, the effects are, well, effective. They still work well enough, and there is nothing in the film so distracting that it removes you from the story.

Actually, I might amend that last statement. There are no costumes/effects/makeup in the film that I found distracting. There was, however, something in the film I found wildly distracting. Did children actors in the forties and fifties attend a special “Annoying School of Acting?” Because jiminy jillickers, I wanted to punch Bobby. Several times. What an obnoxious child. All the other acting is mostly underplayed, serious, and intense; Bobby is a member of the Mouseketeers. No foolin’! I want to take Billy Gray, Kevin Corcoran, and Margaret O’Brien and send them all off to sea in a rowboat with no paddles. Good riddance.

Bobby, do you like movies about gladiators?

As much as Bobby was obnoxious, the character of his mother, Helen, was fantastic. She is strong and no-nonsense, yet still feminine – she’s courting an insurance agent, after all. She handles the news that the man she’s stuck in an elevator with is actually from another planet with just the right mixture of fear and understanding. She is given the job of telling Gort (say it with me), “Klaatu, barada nikto!” despite the fact that Gort is trying to eliminate her, and even though she is frightened, she steels herself up and says it. The best thing of all about Helen, though, is the fact that there is zero romance between herself and Klaatu. The signs are all there; both are played by attractive actors and the characters share several conversations. In a lesser film, Helen would fall in love with Klaatu or vice versa, thus tacking on a wholly unnecessary interplanetary romance. It is fantastically refreshing that there is none of that here. It makes the movie far more powerful and focused on its message of peace.

I hate to use the phrase “important film,” but The Day the Earth Stood Still manages to convey a very powerful and very frustrating message, all amazingly wrapped up in a little science fiction flick from 1951. It’s worth seeing, and worth seeing multiple times.

Arbitrary Rating: 8.5/10. I really hated Bobby.


  1. Nice. I have the exact same reaction Bobby that you do; he might well be the stupidest kid ever in a film. Bobby watches "Carpenter" walk into the spaceship...and then is convinced he's a jewel thief. Thinking is not on Bobby's list of virtues.

    For all it's issues (and it does have them, even more than just Bobby's shameless idiocy), I love it anyway. Helen is a big reason why--she's an early feminist role in film, not something I realized watching it, but only in retrospect. Helen is pretty badass.

    Also, I love all of the Christ symbolism here.

    1. Helen is TOTES badass. I'd put her on my zombie apocalypse team, if for nothing else than that she can handle herself under pressure.

      Christ symbolism: something I completely missed. Interesting.

    2. Why else would Klaatu adopt the name "Carpenter"?

    3. I am now feeling completely thick for not picking up on that sooner. Good call.

  2. I agree with most everything you wrote. The best science fiction makes us look at ourselves in a new light and this movie does that.

    I agree with Steve on the Christ symbolism in the movie.

    There's a real world parallel with Jaffe, too. He plays the sympathetic professor who comments that man sometimes turns on himself. He was soon to be blacklisted by the McCarthy hearings.

    And if you want to see a fantastic science fiction movie, that is all about the story, and has not one single special effect in it, then I highly recommend The Man from Earth. I reviewed it here:

    1. Thanks for the link, Chip, I'll check it out!

      I now feel like a total dunce for not picking up on the Christ symbolism.

  3. Hey, is that your only blog or you in addition to that run some more?