The Conversation is a feature at PopOptiq bringing together Drew Morton and Landon Palmer in a passionate debate about cinema new and old. For their thirteenth piece, they discuss Robert Wise’s sci-fi classic, The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951).
Works of Hollywood genre – be they science fiction, westerns, or gangster films – have received serious critical consideration through the lenses of allegory and subtext. As Wheeler Winston Dixon wrote in Film Genre 2000, “…along with the exterior surface of the film, many genre films of previous decades contained a subtext that could be appreciated by those who cared to delve below the glossy surface of the work.” In other words, the mechanisms of genre are often credited as a platform for something else, likely a critique or diagnosis of the fears and issues that plague contemporary society.
Postwar science fiction has attracted many such readings, which constitute strategies that “elevate” the work from the seeming dredges of high-concept and B-movie stigma with which they were arguably overlooked at the time. That genre functions upon a repetition of themes augments the power of such readings. The global threats of Communism and mass destruction are potentially visible in the exploitative hysteria of Invaders from Mars (William Cameron Menzies, 1953) or the condemnation of American paranoia in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, 1956). The question of filmmakers’ intentionality pervades but does not end the conversation of such readings: as with Sigfried Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler, allegory and subtext are presumed to be informed more by the force of the zeitgeist than individual creative will. As Robin Wood once wrote, the relationship of filmmaking to ideology, politics, and culture could be “habitually rendered…and not necessarily consciously registered” whether in high or low modes of filmmaking.
But this critical tendency potentially overvalues subtext as the primary mode of political engagement within genre, and overlooks the other means of political communication with which genre can engage. That Godzilla (both its 1954 Japanese original by Ishiro Honda and the Americanized cut, Godzilla, King of the Monsters! [Honda and Terry O. Morse 1956]) serves as an “allegory” for Japan’s post-atom bomb fear of nuclear annihilation has grown into common knowledge. But in actually viewing the film, “allegory” and “subtext” fall away as insufficient descriptors for what the film does in the context of a post-Hiroshima/Nagasaki Japan. There is no ambiguity about the monster’s origins as a toxic byproduct of man’s destructive new forms of weaponry – it becomes a literal manifestation of well-founded fear. Such concerns are not part of the film’s subject – they are its text.
Such textual engagement with contemporaneous social fears proved to also be the case when I caught, for the first time, Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) on TCM on New Year’s Eve. I found myself surprised by the degree to which the film explicitly (not implicitly) engaged with the theme of nuclear disarmament, eventually articulating a hopeful prospectus about a pragmatically peaceful future. After a flying saucer lands in Washington, DC, a humanoid alien named Klaatu (Michael Rennie) and his walking weapon – the iconic eight-foot robot Gort – survey the Earth in an enigmatic pursuit of influencing the our planet’s view of war, weapons, and violence.
So, first, the film’s interaction with genre. The look of The Day the Earth Stood Still is remarkable. There is a neo-Expressionist effort present in this film that feels re-tooled for midcentury modernism. Gort is both a work of sleek, simple modern style (as if Gort was modeled after postwar appliances) and shot in a way that emphasizes contrast and the uncanny. His close-up when Klaatu orders Gort to leave the walled-off military site that has surrounded the flying saucer shows a dedication within science fiction as a vehicle for modernist style. The casting of Rennie as Klaatu (relatively unknown in the US at the time, this being his first leading role under his 1949 contract with 20th Century Fox) functions towards this end as well. His thin frame, angular face, and aristocratic demeanor – often composed with equally angular shadows – effectively gives Rennie an “alien,” outsider affect, especially within the suburban Americana within which he resides for much of the film (this approach calls to mind Nicolas Roeg’s work with David Bowie’s body in The Man Who Fell to Earth). While a representative product of early 1950s Hollywood, the shared focus on style by Wise, cinematographer Leo Tover, and the film’s small army of art, set, and makeup artists makes The Day the Earth Stood Still into a paradoxically timeless work of its period. It’s no small wonder that Wise’s more modest genre films in the 1940s and 1950s have been resurrected by auteurist critical practices.
Moreover, it’s astonishing the degree to which this film has directly influenced the shape of bid-budget science-fiction that would come to dominate Hollywood decades later. The film’s 2008 remake was unremarkable no doubt in part because The Day the Earth Stood Still had been effectively “remade” many times over, most evidently in Independence Day (Roland Emmerich 1996), which adapts The Day the Earth Stood Still’s balance of the global scope of its conflict with the narrower arc of select characters directly involved. Much more than one amongst a multitude of “B” genre pictures released during this period, The Day the Earth Stood Still was a model for giving this flying saucer movies A-level production values, presaging Hollywood’s focus on big-budget high-concept genre spectacle decades later.
Yet it’s surprising the degree to which the film focuses on Klaatu’s interaction with humans and in American homes instead of the monster-chasing that would soon come to define many a Roger Corman production during the 1950s. And in this respect the film uses genre as a platform for overt advocacy for nuclear disarmament and non-violence, as Klaatu tracks down experts and world leaders in interest of a global agreement to end war. Effective bureaucracy is The Day the Earth Stood Still’s mobilizing plot device, not images of flying saucers decimating landmarks.
In the film’s famous final scene, Klaatu offers an intergalactic formula for solving Earth’s global crises of violence, central to which is the fascistic dominance of one indestructible weapon: Gort, the cold, indiscriminate peace officer of the universe. In a present in which the efficacy of policing is a subject of great social concern – and knowing full well that official violence was a regular weapon of police in 1951 in the name of “protecting” the very suburbs in which Klaatu poses as human – Klaatu’s proposal can read today as embedding its own seeds for further violence and likely self-destruction. Yet I can’t help but admire the tone of pragmatism in Klaatu’s proposal, for he is not appealing to man’s presumed better nature, but to the efficacy of fear, a weapon the world had demonstrated so convincingly with its efficient, wide-ranging means of global destruction by 1951 (including Godzilla’s source of inspiration).
The Day the Earth Stood Still meets violence on its own terms, and uses the inevitable end of that trajectory (global self-destruction) as the framework for enforced peace. In this respect, The Day the Earth Stood Still is hardly a political work of genre exercised through subtext, but an audacious, explicit endorsement of pragmatic pacifism using the global scope of the flying saucer movie as a spectacular platform upon which to deliver its message under no uncertain terms.
Landon is no doubt correct that one of the classic approaches to Hollywood film genres – especially Westerns and Sci-Fi films – has focused on how their subtext reflects and reacts to American ideology at the time. After all, the logic goes, the stakes are low in a genre film. The budgets were traditionally lower than “prestige” pictures. For instance, Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still carried a budget just under $1 million, which is contrasted by the top grosser of 1951 – the mega-budgeted Quo Vadis at $7.6 million – and other popular films of the year which tended to cost a more reasonable $2-3 million. This low-stakes gameplay allowed filmmakers to cut corners on story and characterization – after all, these are genre pictures and the viewers familiar with the genre do not want to see the same dots connected each time – and pay more attention to style and subtext. That’s one reason why the critics of the 60s found the films of Samuel Fuller, Nicholas Ray, and Howard Hawks to be such fertile playgrounds.
Like Landon, I was initially surprised by how little of The Day the Earth Stood Still’s politics are buried in subtext. Sure, some of its obviousness can be attributed to significant factors like the film’s legacy in popular culture and my familiarity with film analysis. Despite never seeing the film before, the true intentions of Klaatu were not a mystery to me, which meant I did not find the film particularly suspenseful. To the latter point, the film is filled with throwaway lines that telegraph his true intentions. For instance, when Klaatu says “I am fearful when I see people substituting fear for reason” and “I won’t resort to threats… I merely tell you the future of your planet is at stake.”
Yet, as the film ended on Klaatu’s knuckle-rapping monologue, I began to ask myself: “Don’t a lot of Sci-Fi films put their meaning front and center, making it more of the text and less buried, to be found by the thoughtful viewer?” I thought back in the genre’s past to William Cameron Menzies’ Things to Come (1936), based on H.G. Wells’ novel. The film, like Day the Earth Stood Still, focuses on the futility of war. From 1940-2036, we watch as the people of Earth bomb one another back into the dark age with poisonous gases and biological warfare. Technology improves and disappears, only to evolve at a rapid pace once it is tied to the motor of the military industrial complex. Menzies’ film, like Robert Wise’s, ends in a not too subtle monologue declaring that technology can either be used to conquer the stars or murder one another: “If we’re no more than animals, we must snatch each little scrap of happiness and live and suffer and pass, mattering no more than all the other animals do or have done. Is it this? Or that? All the universe? Or nothingness?”
Things to Come no doubt plays a bit preachier than The Day the Earth Stood Still to the contemporary audience. Every scene, like a persuasive speech in a public speaking class, reminds us of Wells’ thesis: “If we don’t end war, war will end us.” In fact, it becomes so repetitive that it verges on a shrill lecture, distracting from even the finest of Menzies’ visuals. But, I ask myself again, is it that different from other Sci-Fi films that favor politics over spectacle (or at least try to balance them out)? Let’s think briefly about the work of our modern Sci-Fi moralist – James Cameron. While the politics of the theatrical version of The Abyss (1989) may verge on being subtextual, they’re rendered clearly in the extended version. Like The Day the Earth Stood Still, aliens intervene in the (atomic) conflict between the United States and Russia by threatening mutual annihilation if the countries do not disarm. This time around, instead of a verbal monologue, we get a montage of visuals that the aliens use to communicate with Bud (Ed Harris). While nuclear war is a through line on the bulk of Cameron’s work of the 80s and early 90s, Avatar (2009) – like the 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still – changes focus to the environment.
My point is that, contrary to popular opinion, it would appear that many Sci-Fi films do not require the appreciation of “those who cared to delve below the glossy surface of the work” to decipher the subtext. Allow me to rattle off one last example before moving on – Brad Bird’s timeless film The Iron Giant (1999), which very obviously situates a robot’s presence within an American Cold War milieu and once again drives home a pacifist message. As the Giant from outer space says “Guns kill… I am not a gun.” The obviousness of The Day the Earth Stood Still prompted me to wonder: “How did contemporary audiences ‘read’ this film? Were the politics that obvious to them?” For Bosley Crowther in the New York Times, the politics were obvious to the point of derailing the film. “One expects more – or less – than a preachment on political morality from a man from Mars… It is comforting of course, to have it made plain that our planetary neighbors are much more peaceful than are we, but this makes for a tepid entertainment in what is anamolously [sic.] labeled the science-fiction field.” An anonymous critic for Variety wrote in a middle of the road capsule review that the film is about a space man who has “come to warn the earth’s people…that peace is being threatened by the wars of the earth-people.” The politics of the film appear to have been as obvious when it was released as they are now.
So, how did the 1951 audience respond to one of the cornerstones of the Sci-Fi genre? After all, the bulk of people today are probably more familiar with this film than they are with Quo Vadis. The film was moderately successful when released, earning double its budget. The film opened within a couple of weeks of other huge earners that year like Show Boat, A Streetcar Named Desire and A Place in the Sun. The success of the latter two films would suggest that American audiences did not turn away from overt politics and crave escapism per se; both films take viewers to fairly dark places by dealing with subjects like spousal abuse, rape, abortion, and murder. The moderate success of The Day the Earth Stood Still probably has more to do with the cultural status of Sci-Fi as being a B-film genre defined by bad special effects and wooden performances. Funny enough, the film’s moderate success – coupled with the United States’ growing conflict with the Soviet Union – prompted the Communist newspaper the Daily Worker to write the film’s politics off. Inspiring the audience to work towards world peace? “That, it appears, is a job for men from other planets.”