The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951, Robert Wise)

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There was a time many years ago when The Day the Earth Stood Still, Robert Wise’s classic production for 20th Century Fox, was considered the greatest of all science fiction films. It isn’t difficult to understand the reasons for this; serious-minded and compelling in a way that sets it apart from the industry of B-pictures for which it was in some sense largely responsible, the film harnesses the considerable resources and polish of its pedigreed director, studio and even composer (Bernard Herrmann) for a sensation of real and high-stakes drama that isn’t limited by the typical trappings of genre. The only sense in which it stands apart from “prestige” studio fare is its relatively anonymous casting, and even this helps the film transcend its natural limitations — the “regular folks” coping with jarring circumstances come across as convincingly ordinary citizens, who despite their proximity to the seats of power in Washington function as multi-pronged audience vessels. They believably interpret the sudden worldwide zeitgeist into which they’re swept in just the disparate fashion you can imagine the actual populace would, something with which we collectively have plenty of experience (especially in the 21st century).

The crisis with which the entirety of planet Earth must contend is the sudden landing of a real-live flying saucer in the U.S. capital city, where military and government officials interpret the flashy visuals and verbal promise of peace about as you’d expect: by firing a shot that throws a potentially enlightening encounter into disarray. This sends messenger alien Klaatu (Michael Rennie) on the run as he desperately attempts to stave off the human race’s construction of space-bound atomic weaponry in order to prevent our own planet’s assured destruction from interplanetary peace forces. Leaving his strong-arm robot Gort at base camp, he solicits the assistance of the occupants of a small boarding house where resides, among others, widowed Helen Benson (Patricia Neal, never posited as a love interest for Klaatu, thank heavens) along with her precocious son Bobby (Billy Gray, later of onetime Nick at Nite staple Father Knows Best). This kind of “peace, or else” narrative was especially and understandably common in the ten years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, though there was no less impulse than there is today to treat any unequivocal antiwar statement as crackpot moralizing, as sardonically displayed again and again within this film, wherein it’s completely out of the question for Klaatu to express his warning to all nations at once due to the political machinations required for such a communication. (Such a notion is the entire basis for the non-sci fi British picture Seven Days to Noon, whose ironies are much subtler.) Klaatu eventually must turn to direct and foreboding action to acquire attention — with the world and especially the American population totally immune to the abstract possibility of destruction, again something we all now know the film got exactly right — and in doing so has to race against a manhunt forming against him, aided by Helen’s slimy boyfriend Tom (Hugh Marlowe).

As implied, the effect The Day the Earth Stood Still had on the film industry, especially the financially lower tiers of same, was monumental and is visible in science fiction of films of the best and worst quality for decades hence. The ingeniously minimalist production design, with contributions from Frank Lloyd Wright, has echoes everywhere from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Ex Machina; the use of varied ensemble casting to convey a large-scale crisis, and to render seriously the threat of a supernatural phenomenon, is mirrored and furthered effectively by Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers a few years later; and hardly a year goes by without a film in which an alien or a monster or a misunderstood criminal stumbles onto the same mother-child dynamic encountered here. As one of the earliest truly “literary” sci-fi pictures, carrying a dormant torch from Just Imagine and Things to Come and of course Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, it seems inevitably to have given rise to the staid thoughtfulness of Star Trek, though conversely it also displays just enough of the whiz-bang excitement of the older, more kid-targeted film serials to keep younger eyes riveted, at least to a point. Less generous viewers can find its occasional hamminess, its sledgehammer political subtext, its strained seriousness and the general silliness of some of its ideas and dialogue (Neal admitted to busting up frequently during the production) off-putting, but only if they’ve never seen one of Roger Corman’s weaker sci-fi movies or even something more nobly intelligent like This Island Earth or Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, compared to any of which its sincerity and spirit are impressively long-lived. The broad trend of 1950s sci-fi is to talk endlessly about ideas in a fashion that eventually feels stilted and self-important; the triumph of Robert Wise, screenwriter Edmund North and most of the cast is to render these oddball notions immediate, their metaphoric relevance unmistakable.

That’s to say nothing of the sense of wonder the picture is able to convey, thanks in part to the rendering of the film’s second act largely from the eyes of the young boy Bobby, whose curiosity and openness are engaging without coming across as overly wide-eyed in the familiar manner of so many similar roles in sci-fi movies of this vintage. Secondarily, Rennie’s enigmatic performance of Klaatu and the reasonable, enlightened urgency North provides to his character make even the modern viewer feel a certain peace of mind in his presence, an understanding that what he is dispensing is the only variety of wisdom that truly matters to a species now capable of destroying itself and everything around it. But it’s hard to convey how radically this idea of listening to an intellectual analysis of the human race’s situation would have played in 1951, on the cusp of the Second Red Scare; it’s a bit surprising everyone involved with the production wasn’t ultimately blacklisted, especially since one of its central messages is that Americans should “talk” to the U.S.S.R. A movie whose central advocation is of thoughtful communication and active listening is inevitably destined to be thought of as a hallmark of “liberal cinema,” which is more than a little depressing.

Perhaps that’s why The Day the Earth Stood Still somewhat muddies up its polemical tendencies in the last ten minutes, which for various reasons manage to squander much of the goodwill that the film spends an hour-plus acquiring. For anyone who is watching for the sheer excitement of it all, the structure of the ending (a murder, a resurrection, a speech, a departure) can only be described as an anticlimax, but that may well be a structural necessity in order to bring across the film’s impassioned message, which zombie Klaatu must deliver to an assembly of (most likely powerless) scientists from across the world. It’s a coyly cynical notion that it’s completely impossible for the actual leaders of Earth to end their “petty squabbling” long enough for a plea to end war and destruction, just as pointed as the fact that the compassion-driven Klaatu begins and ends his time on Earth by being gunned down. The film probably should end with a moment of bitter disappointment: either with Klaatu dying on the street giving orders for Gort to destroy the planet thanks to the inevitability of its belligerence, or maybe even with a direct call to action to the scientists and therefore to the audience. What we get instead is something of a half-measure; there is a vaguely exploitative, largely pointless sequence in which the heretofore strong and self-possessed character Helen, given an order to convey the message of Klaatu’s death to Gort, meaninglessly hesitates out of apparent fear, gets chased around in typical helpless-woman-in-distress fashion, and then upon finally saying the key words as assigned gets picked up and carried onto the spaceship and watches awkwardly as Gort carries out the retrieval then revival of Klaatu. It’s protracted and juvenile in a way the rest of the film isn’t, and you’re left with the notion that the entire massive chase scene portending all this (precipitated by the greed of Helen’s future ex-fiance, a character poorly and cartoonishly conveyed by a miscast Marlowe, who’s too dorky to play this kind of straightforward egomaniac without making the film seem like a joke; and by the Judas-like behavior of the kid Bobby) was just a way to stretch out the runtime a bit.

Nevertheless, now here we are, and we assume we are about to be treated at last with Klaatu’s grand, vital message for all of the human race — the scientific minds from all nations on the specially arranged chairs in the film, the regular folks and future generations watching in the movie theater and years later at home, the government leaders and officials who’d finally see the error of their ways after witnessing this fine work of popular art. Surely it would be something stirring like Chaplin’s moment in the sun at the end of The Great Dictator pleading for action and reason, or like the “now or never” intensity of what Joel McCrea says over the radio in Foreign Correspondent. Or, to travel three years into the future, Joseph Welch laying into Joseph McCarthy on the Senate floor. Or the Gettysburg Address by the previously invoked Lincoln. What is the grand, paradigm-shifting bit of wisdom our hero Klaatu has to offer us? I will now reproduce it in its entirety.

I am leaving soon and you’ll forgive me if I speak bluntly. The universe grows smaller every day and the threat of aggression by any group anywhere can no longer be tolerated. There must be security for all or no one is secure. Now this does not mean giving up any freedom, except the freedom to act irresponsibly. Your ancestors knew this when they made laws to govern themselves and hired policemen to enforce them. We, of the other planets, have long accepted this principle. We have an organization for the mutual protection of all planets and for the complete elimination of aggression. The test of any such higher authority is, of course, the police force that supports it. For our policemen we created a race of robots. Their function is to patrol the planets in spaceships like this one and preserve the peace. In matters of aggression we have given them absolute power over us. This power cannot be revoked. At the first signs of violence they act automatically against the aggressor. The penalty for provoking their action is too terrible to risk. The result is we live in peace without arms or armies, secure in theknowledge that we are free from aggression and war, free to pursue more profitable enterprises. Now, we do not pretend to have achieved perfection, but we do have a system, and it works. I came here to give you these facts. It is no concern of ours how you run your own planet, but if you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder. Your choice is simple: join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration. We shall be waiting for your answer. The decision rests with you.

While it begins and ends well enough, this aggressively marble-mouthed treatise about the importance of, er, flying robot police amounts to something closer to Peter Graves’ incomprehensible faux-profound “man is a feeling creature” verbal essay in Corman’s It Conquered the World, or better yet, Bela Lugosi’s infanmous Bride of the Monster show-stopper. (“Home? I have no home. Hunted, despised, living like an animal! The jungle is my home. But I will show the world that I can be its master! I will perfect my own race of people. A race of atomic supermen which will conquer the world!”) Instead of tying the film’s text to its subtext in a meaningful fashion, this chatter only makes it seem childish, and has a distancing effect from any attempt to take its moral standing seriously — today it almost feels like a cowardly refusal to truly convey a message of peace, instead an advocation for the thought-crime unit eventually depicted in Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report. It leaves the film in a compromised state, the audience (including the still-terrified gaggle of scientists) in confusion. It’s a gross derailment of a deeply respectable project.

For that reason, The Day the Earth Stood Still lives in the memory mostly as a fun and influential curio; you process it the same way you might any engagingly antique piece of once-relevant ideology, quickly forgetting how prescient, tense and upsetting it is for the majority of its first two thirds. The performances, apart from Marlowe’s, are wonderfully wholehearted and human, especially Neal whose heroine has a real heft and dimension far apart from the traditionally expected 1950s “Mom” archetype. Saddled with a lot of difficult dialogue, Rennie delivers most of it impeccably, and seems just off-kilter enough — like a forecast of David Byrne — to sell himself equally as a being from another world as as someone who actually could blend in on the streets of Washington. The pacing is impressively brisk — Wise has UFOs landed, Americans botching it and the planet in serious trouble within fifteen minutes — and the special effects from the flying saucer interior and exterior to the giant robot Gort are impressively slick and dreamlike, capturing the perfect balance of camp, menace and joyous futurism. You can ask for little more from entertainment; but for enlightenment, the movie steps just up to the precipice and then flies dejectedly away, which may after all be all that we humans really deserve.

***

[Includes a modest amount of material from a review I posted elsewhere in 2007.]

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