I spent a lot of my youth in the library exploring books about old science fiction (and later, horror) films, and so many titles resonate with me that are attached to films I may or may not have ever gotten around to seeing. Some I pursued relentlessly (like the George Pal-produced, 1953 The War of the Worlds) and others I let wander past me completely for years (like Forbidden Planet, which I have since seen). Plenty I used to catch on television, especially when the Sci-Fi Channel used to play older material instead of incessant modern syndication, only occasionally good–though usually excellent when it is–original programming and lots of lame original movies. A lot of these titles are ingrained, but over the years they’ve faded a bit–except the ones I intently pursued, or happened to catch and really notice. I eventually saw The Day the Earth Stood Still in a small theatre, long after I originally saw it on television.
In 1951, a large rotating, glowing saucer-shaped spaceship lands in Washington, D.C. to the amazement–and often fear–of many citizens of both the area and the world as a whole. When it finally opens, out walks a man-shape with an unusual head encased in a helmet (Michael Rennie), leading tensed military forces stationed outside the ship to cling tighter to their firearms. When the being raises a handheld object and flicks open a frill of spikes on it, one soldier moves to stop the obvious violence to follow with a pre-emptive bullet to the device and then the alien. In response, out wanders an eight foot robot of smooth, shiny silver, causing a stampede of exiting on-lookers, no longer curious enough to hang around for slaughter and death. A shield raises from the eyes of the robot and it emits a beam which destroys rifles and tanks ahead of them. The alien quickly tells the robot, Gort (played by Lock Martin), to stop, leading the soldiers to more willingly approach him, where he informs them the destroyed device was for the President, intended to allow the study of extraterrestrial life. Cut to a hospital and the alien, now clearly no different, physically, from humans is able to inform those around him of his name–Klaatu. An ambassadorial visit prevents Klaatu from informing anyone of his reasons for being there–he has no interest in the petty squabblings of man, and wishes to speak only to the heads of every single nation of the Earth. When this is refused, he easily escapes from the hospital the military wishes to keep him locked up in and attempts to discover why man is like he is, taking refuge in the communal home that Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) and her son Bobby (Billy Gray). It is the young Bobby who leads Klaatu around the city, the two alternately educating each other, with Bobby revealing the idea of the smartest man around at Klaatu’s request–Dr. Jacob Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe). Now the spread of fear races against Klaatu’s as yet only hinted true mission, with the military intent on stopping him, eventually at all costs, and Klaatu continuing to pursue a world-wide audience.
Many science fiction writers felt free, especially in the earliest decades of the genre’s upfront existence, to express opinions that it would be otherwise difficult to openly express when they wrote stories of aliens, robots, or simply the future. Analogy, symbolism and outright allegory were, and often still are, incredibly common tools of the science fiction trade. The Day the Earth Stood Still aims for one absolutely obvious message–an endorsement of worldwide peace and abandonment of international conflict. It also draws clear lines between Klaatu and Jesus, apparently made clearer by the upstairs meddling of a censor who was offended and instead of subtleness made it a clobbering punch of the obvious. This is always an amusing background to hear of–Isaac Asimov’s disinclination to write aliens in his work came from the meddling of John W. Campbell, Jr., who insisted that humans always be victorious, in a sort of strange, misguided racism manifested as “species-ism.” At least here, screenwriter Edmund H. North’s original intentions were, however unintentionally, honoured–though, as I say, made more transparent than he intended. Robert Wise aims for a very realistic approach to the film, removing much of the operatic drama that science fiction tended toward in its early big-studio film life, with few low-and-twisted angle shots of women screaming (though, admittedly, there is still a “lone woman screaming” scene). It points toward paranoia and itchy trigger fingers, as well as pre-emptive attacks (ahem) instead of evil humans or, as was often expected, evil aliens.
The idea of the unexpected twist on the motivations of extraterrestrials has been beaten pretty far into the ground, but it seems every ad-man or producer thinks he has come up with the brilliant idea of inverting expectations in either direction. Generally, there is some credence to this in that there’s usually a spate of one or the other and they do at least fly in the face of the current trend (I vaguely recall movies pointing out that they were certainly not E.T. for instance), but The Day the Earth Stood Still is one of the best examples. The exiting form of Klaatu, and especially Gort, is definitely one of menace, though Wise wisely (sorry) avoids imbuing it with extra menace to let it stand on its own terms, and the reaction of the soldiers then does not seem completely out of line–especially considering the clear technological superiority of the alien he’s facing. However it’s just this mentality that Wise and North then push our faces into–showing that Klaatu has pure motives for his appearance, and loathes conflict or violence. Of course this whole idea was most amusingly poked at in Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! (the original Topps trading card series it was based on not looking to have the back and forth of theorized “mistaken gestures”), but this film does it in the most serious way, and is one of those brilliant films about the Cold War that is a plain entertaining science fiction film, a solid story as science fiction goes with authors of it (Clarke rated it higher than 2001, which he himself scripted!), and a very good and not too overt discussion of the Cold War mentality.
Do yourself a favour and see this one before the Keanu Reeves remake–that one may yet turn out all right (though I have doubts as always), but this one stands proudly on its own as a classic.