The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

The general attitude toward science fiction has often been that it is a lesser form of entertainment.  It didn't help that the magazines that specialized in it featured bug-eyed monsters abducting scantily clad human ladies, leading many people to consider the genre barely above that of children's books and comics.  There were many stories and books that fit the stereotype, but the ones that were most popular with fans were the ones that were based more in science than fantasy.  That's why "speculative fiction" was often a favored description of the genre.  

As intelligent as a script or tale may be it still couldn't escape the company it keeps.  The Day the Earth Stood Still was based on a short story by Harry Bates called "Farewell to the Master" that also dealt with a first contact situation gone wrong.  It fell on the more thoughtful side of the genre, as does the movie, but alas the poster - as striking as it is - shows the robot Gort with a half-dressed blonde in his arms while destroying the massed armies of the free world.  Little of anything of that type happens throughout the movie which, instead, is focused more on the stupidity and destructiveness of the Cold War and our own propensity toward violence than on giant robots carrying off Earth's women. 

On a sunny day in 1951 a spaceship lands near the Mall in Washington, D.C.  It is surrounded by the Army and local police and cordoned off, though it naturally attracts a number of curious onlookers.  The man who emerges identifies himself as Klaatu (Michael Rennie), and he is accompanied by a robot named Gort (Lock Martin).  When Klaatu draws an object and holds it out to the crowd he is shot, leading Gort to immediately melt all military weapons in the vicinity.  Though he is wounded it is not mortally, and Klaatu is taken to a hospital where he says he wants to meet with the leaders of all the nations.  They refuse due to bickering about where the meeting should be held. 

Frustrated, Klaatu breaks out of the hospital and, taking on the identity of a Mr. Carpenter, goes out among the normal population to see what Earth is really like.  He rents a room at a boarding house owned by widow Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) and soon befriends her young son Bobby (Billy Gray).  Through Bobby he learns of Professor Jacob Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe), a theoretical physicist with sway in the scientific world.  Barnhardt agrees to arrange a meeting with other scientists so that Klaatu may deliver his message to the world but, after a demonstration of his power, the Army enhance their search for the spaceman.  He is forced to reveal himself to Helen, enlisting her help to keep Gort from retaliating if he is wounded or killed, and to help make sure the message is delivered.

The Day the Earth Stood Still was released shortly after another well-received sci-fi thriller, The Thing from Another World!.  Both dealt in a more scientific and intelligent manner with the subject of alien contact, even if the latter was more in the typical vein of the "other" being the enemy.  The entire decade would be filled with movies about aliens coming to Earth, and The Day the Earth Stood Still stands out both in the way it takes the idea seriously and also shows humanity as being the monsters they are.  It also doesn't present the aliens as all-knowing or their way being a panacea; to the contrary, the galactic society to which Klaatu belongs sounds as oppressive as any military dictatorship and with peacekeeping administered in a similar fashion to that employed by the supercomputer in Colossus: The Forbin Project.  

There are a few problems, most of them foist upon director Robert Wise when making the movie.  One is some sped-up scenes, which never look good.  There is also some forced Christianity thrust in by censors and the mistaken idea that Venus was an inhabitable world, which was something pretty much known to be wrong even in the 1950s.  One thing that seems an error, which is the distance Klaatu travels being about that of Mars, makes sense when one thinks about his mission and that, even with the primitive technology of the time, there would be no way he would want his true origin to be known.  Mars, after all, would be a good place to observe humanity without being seen at a time before we had even put a human being in space. 

Despite these quibbles Michael Rennie puts on a great performance as Klaatu.  Though nominally looking human and seeming to have evolved in a similar manner his gaunt appearance and ability to bring a stiff, awkward formality to the role helps make his otherness believable.  The special effects still manage to stand up after this long and Gort is an imposing figure.  A good portion of this was shot outside in broad daylight so it is surprising that it still comes off as well as it does, but being filmed in black and white certainly helps.  Robert Wise helps make sure this is nowhere near as stiff and hammy as many of its contemporaries. 

The Day the Earth Stood Still is also quite a progressive film for its time.  The military, usually the hero in most of these stories, are portrayed as trigger-happy and paranoid.  There is the rare nod toward the segregated society a good portion of the United States lived in - Washington, D.C. being one such place - and which Hollywood tended to ignore.  It is a product of its time but it is a lot more honest about its time than most movies and television shows.  It is also much better than many of the imitators that would come after it that largely stuck to the status quo formula. 

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
Time: 92 minutes
Starring: Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal, Billy Gray, Hugh Marlowe, Lock Martin
Director: Robert Wise



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