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Alien Invasion Month: ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ is an excellent blunt instrument

Alien Invasion Month: ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ is an excellent blunt instrument

The Day the Earth Stood Still image
Written by Edmund H. North
Directed by Robert Wise
U.S.A., 1951

Whether rightly or wrongly, Man has been declared as the superior being on planet Earth. The scope of their cognitive skills, their ability to emote in countless ways, the complexity of their intellect, such factors have led humans to dominate, so to speak, other forms of life as well as organize itself in vast, regimented societies with hundreds of customs and rules. For all its demonstrations of intelligence and capacity for reason and love, Man has also proven time and time again to be an inherently violent and infuriatingly stubborn creature, incapable of finding common ground with neighbors and therefore resorting to battle and, sadly, killing  in order to resolve differences. This fatal flaw in mankind’s psyche is the thrusting force that brings a potentially benevolent or deadly alien visitor to Earth in the 1951 science-fiction classic, The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Robert Wise’s film gets down to business immediately. Rather than commence the story by setting up the human characters the viewer is to follow throughout the adventure before their daily routines are interrupted by the arrival of an otherworldly space craft, The Day the Earth Stood Still opens with the United States and the world hovering around radios (!) and televisions, listening intently to news broadcasts announcing that scientists have detected an incoming unidentified flying object approaching the American Atlantic coast. Soon enough, a disc shaped vehicle lands in Washington D.C., out of which walks a humanoid alien (Michael Rennie) named Klaatu. The visitor’s attempts to befriend the onlooking military prove miscalculated as he is promptly shot and taken to a military hospital for recovery. Before the American government can question him further, Klaatu escapes confinement in order to explore the surroundings, eventually making the acquaintance of a young boy. Bobby Benson (Bill Gray) and his mother Helen (Patricia Neal). Klaatu’s visit to Earth is not, alas, just for taking in sights and sounds, but to warn mankind that it must change its violent ways if the species wishes to survive!

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The Day the Earth Stood Still is, for intents and purposes, the quintessential mid-twentieth century science-fiction film, insofar as utilizes a fantastical concept, the idea that visitors from another planet make contact with Earth’s kind, for the purposes of making direct commentary on the problems afflicting the planet and its people at the time. What’s more, the manner in which said commentary is delivered is as far removed from subtlety as can be. Klaatu literally announces that if humans do not cease their increasing weaponization, a pattern which would logically spread the threat of destruction not only to their own world but eventually to others, he and his mechanized soldier Gort will wipe out life as it is known on Earth. Commentary laden ultimatums in movies do not come more black and white than that. For that reason, Robert Wise’s film may be a turn off for some. In an age where many demand some form of realism and subtlety,  Stood Still will appear as embarrassingly didactic for some.

Most science-fiction films do try to say something about the human condition, be it in the realm of politics, war, culture or any other aspects to human life which influence and define us. Those of the 50 and 60s went about it in more overt ways sometimes, other times preferring to mask the commentary by substituting real fears and questions for imaginary ones, such as in the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers which was a veiled exploration of the fear of invading communism in the United States. Stood Still abandons any pretense of allegory or subtlety, preferring to attack the worst of Man’s behavioral patterns since time immemorial: the reliance of violence to confront fear, deal with mistrust and be done with strenuous relations. Despite that some will shun the picture for its open book attitude, there is something to be said about a major motion picture created in the early 1950s that not only tackled the greatest issue of the day concerning the major Western and Eastern powers, the Cold War, but unequivocally criticized the belligerent attitudes of both sides. What subtlety was there when nations were stockpiling on nuclear arms, coaxing smaller neighbours into their sphere of influence for the sake of increased regional power, the division of Berlin and, the most gag inducing, mind numbing event of the Cold War, the split of the entire Korean Peninsula by the Americans and the Soviets, only for former brothers and sisters to go to war with each other?  Nay, there was nothing subtle about the Cold War nor its possible effects on people and the environment,  which probably made the bluntness of  Wise’s picture all the more prescient for its time.

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The slight touch of irony to Klaatu’s warning is earned when explaining that the other observing planetary systems fear not how humans treat one another (although Klaatu  does take some verbal stabs at what he views as childish bickering amongst nations) but that their insatiable desire to produce greater forms of weaponry will inevitably begin to threaten other life forms in other systems. That in of itself can be taken as a comment on the destructive results of human behaviour on the actual system in which they live, what sustains life on Earth, from people to animals to plants, the…the…what is it called again? Ah yes, the ecosystem. Whatever.

As for the film itself, director Robert Wise, very much a chameleon storyteller who spent his career effortlessly  bouncing from genre to genre, gives a bit of what a traditional audience would want from an alien invasion movie all the while subverting some expectations. There is a big robot that can eviscerate matter with a single, powerful ray emanating from his visor and he does put his abilities to use on occasion in some decent action-oriented moments, but for the most part the movie concerns itself with the either the inevitable fear the majority of humans have for their mysterious visitors and Klaatu’s desire to perform a reconnaissance mission by meeting with some of Earth’s inhabitants, which is how he stumbles on the Bensons (one of the jokes in the film is that authorities on the lookout for Klaatu have only a photograph of the alien when he wore his helmet to share with the public, hence why nobody detects Klaatu’s otherworldly origins when roaming the streets in broad daylight). There is a rather significant portion of the picture dedicated to building the friendship between Klaatu and Bobby and then between the visitor and the boy’s mother, Helen. Eventually the pace picks up as Klaatu makes preparations for a speech he wishes to deliver to the world with the help of a brilliant scientist (Sam Jaffe), leading to the curiously subdued climax which, unlike much of what came before, leaves the result of Klaatu’s efforts open to interpretation for the audience. Generally, the movie trots along at its own comfortable pace, unconcerned with providing countless thrills and set pieces and more interested in developing bonds between characters and commenting on human nature.

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There are a handful of nitpicks one can aim at Stood Still, from the ease with which Klaatu converses with the humans (understanding jokes, sarcasm, mannerisms), the laughably inept security perimeter stationed around the alien spacecraft, and Helen’s predictably suspicious boyfriend quickly takes a disliking to Kaatu friendliness. It remains a reasonably entertaining, smartly directed,  well acted and brilliantly scored (this being the film that made the haunting theremin sound famous) sci-fi drama. Michael Rennie is a fantastic Klaatu, just warm and friendly enough for the audience to take a liking to him but nevertheless resolute in completing his mission of delivering the most fearful ultimatum imaginable. Sadly, movies can only carry so much influence and the world today finds itself in as bad or worse a shape, politically and militarily, as it did in 1951. Oh Klaatu, where art thou?

-Edgar Chaput