Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, November 27, 2015

Recent Watches: The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

When it comes to science fiction films, few decades defined the genre like the fifties. The Atomic Age was upon us and, with it, came new fears and anxieties. The monster movies of the forties and thirties usually looked towards mad science or ancient curses as the source of their threats. In the fifties, the world of science exploded, causing writers and filmmakers to look towards the skies. There are few sci-fi movies of this era more influential then 1951’s “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” It’s look, story, and concepts would ripple through countless other films. Many films about visitors from space followed in the decade to come. However, few were as thoughtful or insightful as Robert Wise’s classic.

A normal day in Washington, D.C. is interrupted when the incredible happens. A flying saucer lands on the national lawn. An eight foot tall robot, who can deatomize rifles just by looking at them, emerges. Following him is a man in a space suit who wishes to speak with the leaders of the world. Calling himself Klaatu, he is soon shot by a soldier with an itchy trigger finger. While recovering in a hospital, he expresses a desire to speak with all the world’s leaders, not just the president. He has an important warning for the people of Earth. Soon, Klaatu sneaks out of government custody and winds up living with a widower and her young son. He continues to seek a forum for his message.

Compared to the alien invasion flicks that would follow throughout the decade, “The Day the Earth Stood Still” is a far more thoughtful film. Though the special effects are fantastic, the story is more about characters and ideas. The alien is not the aggressor but is, in many ways, the hero. Klaatu is an ambassador, with a diplomatic approach to the situation. He’s also a scientist, meeting with the country’s brightest mind and helping him develop his theories. However, “The Day the Earth Stood Still” doesn’t truly have good guys or bad guys. The soldiers who fire on Klaatu and Gort are scared. The governments that prevent the alien’s message from being heard can’t put aside their petty difference. Gort is simply following his master’s orders, protecting the ship. The film’s message is one of peace and cooperation. Klaatu reveals his message at the story’s climax. Earth must cease the use of nuclear weapons or face destruction. Coming off of World War II, it’s a message the world needed to hear. Once you strip away “The Day the Earth Stood Still’s” sci-fi allegory, it becomes a film about this: A nuclear war will destroy the world. The movie’s not wrong.

“The Day the Earth Stood Still” is also a humanist film. It’s a story about cosmic circumstances set among normal people. Accordingly, the performances are top-notched. Michael Rennie has an interesting balancing act as Klaatu. He has to be alien enough to be believable as an extraterrestrial, yet he can’t become too off-putting. It’s a precarious balance Rennie achieves. Klaatu has the knowledge to resolve the most complex mathematical equation yet can still relate to a little boy. Patricia Neal is equally sympathetic as the widow that takes Klaatu in. When she learns the man’s true mission, she is surprisingly willing to go along with it. The script is smart enough to give every character a fair chance. The little boy, played by Billy Gray, is realistic for a child his age while maintaining an interest personality. Sam Jaffe is eccentric but sympathetic as the scientist whom Klaatu talks to. Even Hugh Marlowe, as the slightly antagonistic man courting Neal, has understandable motives. A flying saucer landing in our nation’s capital would probably be pretty scary.

(Also of note: The film’s obvious Christ metaphor. The human name Klaatu takes is “Mr. Carpenter” and, later, he rises from the dead. Not sure where the movie’s going with that, as Klaatu is not exactly a savior, but it’s more subtle then it sounds.)

As well-made as “The Day the Earth Stood Still” is, most of its imitators would not copy the film’s thoughtful story line. Instead, it is the movie’s production design that would be widely copied. Klaatu’s ship is the iconic version of a flying saucer in pop culture. A dome that smooths out into a round plate, the surface level and metallic. Gort is one of the most recognizable robots in sci-fi. The machine’s skin is similar to the ship, with a stiff, stocky body that towers over everyone. Gort’s eye, a single visor that shoots a concentrated laser beam, is equally iconic. Even Klaatu’s space suit, with his baggy silver body and rounded helmet, would be copied endlessly. The commanding words that control Gort, “Klaatu Barada Nikto,” would become a repeatedly referenced in-joke. The theremin-driven score would also define the sound of sci-fi movies for years to come. Sci-fi movies looked very different before “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” Afterwards, the genre would fall in line. That’s how effective the film’s production design was.

“The Day the Earth Stood Still” is truly a classic, a beautifully written science fiction story with a powerful, meaningful moral for the whole world. The political environment has changed since it was made. Yet its message, about fear, peace, and understanding, remains relevant. Beyond that, it’s an extremely well-made picture, with moments thrilling, funny, and touching. [9/10]

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