by Mel Valentin
The Golden Age of science fiction films can be traced to a three-month period in 1951 that saw the release o three science-fiction classics, two dealing with alien invasions or visitations, "The Thing From Another World" and "The Day The Earth Stood Still," and the third with a doomsday scenario, "When Worlds Collide." Of the three, "The Day the Earth Stood Still" was the most “serious,” both anti-war and anti-Cold War. Loosely based on Harry Bates’ short story, "Farewell to the Master," that appeared in "Astounding Science Fiction," "The Day the Earth Stood Still" tapped into fears of UFOs, alien invasion, and Cold War tensions that threatened to explode into global conflict. Unique in its use of two theremins, Bernard Herrmann’s score became the oft-imitated standard for science fiction films made over the next decade.From out of nowhere (actually outer space), a silver-edged flying saucer lands on the Ellipse in President’s Park, Washington, D.C. Sightseers, the media, and the military, rifles drawn and tank guns aimed squarely at the saucer-shaped ship, appear almost immediately. Klaatu (Michael Rennie), an envoy from a distant, heretofore unknown civilization (or actually a group of civilizations, clearly modeled on our United Nations) emerges from the ship. Klaatu’s robot, Gort (Lock Martin) also emerges from the ship. After Klaatu introduces himself in English and makes an offering to the gathered crowd, an anxious soldier inadvertently fires his rifle and injures Klaatu. Gort responds immediately, destroying guns and tanks with a heat ray from his visor.
"Cold War allegory remains must-see filmmaking for sci-fi fans."
Taken to Walter Reed Hospital, Klaatu recovers from his wound faster than normal. Klaatu soon realizes he’s being held as a prisoner by the United States. After a representative of the U.S. president rejects Klaatu's request to meet with world leaders, Klaatu steals a suit and escapes into the world. Wanting to learn more about human beings, he takes a room at a boarding house under the name “John Carpenter.” There, Klaatu befriends Helen Benson (Patricia Neal), a Department of Commerce employee, her preteen son, Bobby (Billy Gray), and later, Helen’s boyfriend, Tom Stevens (Hugh Marlowe), an ambitious Treasury Department employee. At Bobby’s suggestion, Klaatu pays a visit to the “smartest man in Washington, D.C." physicist Jacob Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe).
The Day the Earth Stood Still borrowed many elements from pulp genre sources, including, of course, Harry Bates' story. While Bates’ story contained the obligatory twist ending tied to the robot’s identity, The Day the Earth Stood Still instead reveals the robot’s actual mission at the climax. Producer Julian Blaustein wanted audiences to take more away from The Day the Earth Stood Still than a simple science fiction story involving aliens and robots. He wanted to enlighten moviegoers too. He wanted moviegoers to leave the theater with an anti-war, anti-Cold War message in mind. Screenwriter Edmund H. North (Meteor, The Far Horizons, In a Lonely Place) was more than willing to oblige, but took the subtext further, daringly turning Klaatu into a secular Christ figure, from the name Klaatu assumes, “Carpenter,” to (spoiler alert) his death and resurrection which, while firmly based in science, Klaatu ascribes to an “Almighty Spirit” (something censors insisted North include).
The Day the Earth Stood Still is notable as much for what it doesn’t have than what it does: the action-oriented set pieces de rigueur in contemporary science fiction films. Robert Wise’s (Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Audrey Rose, The Andromeda Strain, The Sound of Music, West Side Story) noir-influenced direction was typical for the day. Dialogue is action and action is dialogue (for the most part). The few set pieces are either brief or unfold slowly, especially any scenes involving Gort, due to the heavy, uncomfortable costume doorman-turned-performer Lock Martin wore during the shoot. Visual effects shots or sequences are also few and far between, limited to one or two shots of Klaatu’s ship in flight and Gort’s response to an aggressive, shoot-first, collect-the-bodies-later military.Whatever its strengths as a film or as history, Blaustein, North, and Wise’s solution to war and aggression raises moral, ethical, and even practical considerations that "The Day the Earth Stood Still" doesn’t openly acknowledge or if it does, suggests the alternative, nation-states warring over imaginary boundaries and very real resources or ideological differences, is far, far worse. The solution offered by "The Day the Earth Stood Still" is also extremely pessimistic, since it implies that human beings will never evolve out of our warlike state, just employ increasingly sophisticated, increasingly lethal weapons to settle the disputes between nation-states or other tribal-like groups. Accepting that position, however, would mean accepting the solution "The Day the Earth Stood Still" offers, one that involves the loss of freedom. It’s a fascinating conundrum and one among many reasons that makes "The Day the Earth Stood Still" as relevant today as it was almost sixty years ago.
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originally posted: 06/05/08 12:00:00