#278 The Day The Earth Stood Still

(1951, Robert Wise)

“Klaatu barada nikto”

The 1950s were a haven for alien invasion movies involving floppy costumes and cheesy acting, thanks to pop culture being massively influenced by Cold War anxiety and the growing interest in outer space. Some of it was consigned to the dustbin of film history, while other movies found themselves worthy of ridicule on Mystery Science Theater 3000. But what of the successes? What about the sci-fi movies that gained genuine critical acclaim and went on to be hugely influential? Enter The Day The Earth Stood Still.

A mysterious flying saucer has landed in Washington D.C., and the public flock to the site in droves, desperate to see first contact with extra-terrestrial life. When a humanoid by the name of Klaatu (Michael Rennie) emerges from the saucer, he is immediately shot by a solider and taken to hospital, while his robot bodyguard, Gort, fires back. While Earth tries to figure out how to respond to this “attack”, Klaatu escapes the hospital and begins his attempt to deliver a very important message.

The Day The Earth Stood Still is a product of its time, as evidenced by its incredibly ropey effects. The flying saucer at the beginning doesn’t so much land as glide and shudder on a projection screen. Gort looks less like a robot and more like a member of Daft Punk trying on an early prototype of their famous robo-suits. Basically, this film feels old.

The plot’s almost as ropey as the effects at times as well. It’s basically 90 minutes of a guy who happens to be an alien wandering around doing things, culminating in a somewhat heavy-handed moral message. This isn’t a dastardly alien invasion nor is it an E.T.-style journey of discovery for our protagonist. Since his people have studied Earth extensively, he knows everything about Earth already, so he’s just trying to get his broadcast sorted with only some minor tension surrounding him being found out…which he kind of will be anyway when he makes his broadcast.

There’s also some religious symbolism with Klaatu being somewhat of a Christ-like figure, and that’s a bit silly too, especially with an alien from another planet with significantly more advanced technology making some casual references to God. Director Robert Wise claimed he never noticed the religious imagery in the script, but I wonder how that’s possible when it’s pretty in-your-face about it.

And yet, The Day The Earth Stood Still is oddly charming. Klaatu is a likeable chap, played very sympathetically by Rennie, and certainly a more likeable Christ-like figure than Christ himself in our last review. While he doesn’t learn much about the planet, it seems very much that his suspicions about Earth being full of violent, reactionary people are confirmed, but there are a few exceptions, and it’s clear that this causes conflict in him. He’s a character who seems fascinated by Earthlings but saddened by their destructive tendencies.

I also just really like the concept of an alien “invasion” movie told from the alien’s perspective. While it’s executed in a flawed way, it’s still interesting to see. It was also a pleasant surprise since I originally got the impression that this was a movie about a rampaging killer robot that ended on an anti-war message (seriously, look at this poster!), but it really isn’t. Gort gets very little screen-time, and is more of a mysterious figure that only starts wreckin’ shit when Klaatu is threatened than anything outright destructive. Basically, this is a very unique movie in its execution, and I found it fascinating to watch.

So does The Day The Earth Stood Still deserve its status as a classic sci-fi movie? Absolutely, although only just. It’s a little dated and very, very flawed, but it’s a great character exploration and a unique and compelling concept, and for that alone it deserves all the praise it receives. Let’s just forget that remake with Keanu’s Klaatu as a literal God who wants to Noah’s Ark the planet, shall we?

Starring Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal & Hugh Marlowe
Written by Harry Bates (short story – “Farewell To The Master”) and Edmund H. North
Produced by Julian Blaustein
Music by Bernard Hermann
Cinematography by Leo Tover
Edited by William H. Reynolds

Favourite Scene: That final message is very much worth the wait, even if it is a little cheesy.
Scene That Bugged Me: The resurrection scene. No, seriously. Let’s not go there.

Watch it if: You want to see a unique classic alien movie
Avoid it if: You think the remake’s environmental message makes sense

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Posted on April 23, 2014, in 1950s, Sci Fi and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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