Mar 11, 2011

[Movies] The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)

The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)It's kind of sad to note that when people think about science fiction movies these days, they tend to remember big budget blockbusters with dazzling effects and casts that include a variety of eye candy for both men and women. It's no longer common that the term "science fiction" triggers thoughts of very serious dramas with rather heavy content as it attempts to tackle serious issues.

I suppose it's a consequence of the times. For many studios, the technology has pretty much started to dictate the storytelling when it should be the other way around. But I can't really blame them - movie-goers tend to gobble them up like candy. Plus the challenge to studios is to create an movie experience that can't be easily replicated in people's home theater setups, hence the stress on IMAX, 3D movies and all that jazz.

So I thought it would be nice to put a bit more effort into revisiting some of the "classics" of the older science fiction movie era. This was a period when these movies felt more like stage plays recorded for more people to see. These were the kinds of movies that tried to explore the human condition using different situations and settings including far-flung vistas in a theoretical future. And this one felt like a pretty good one to start with.

The Day the Earth Stood Still is a 1951 science fiction movie directed by Robert Wise. The screenplay was written by Edmund H. North as based on a short story entitled "Farewell to the Master", as written by Harry Bates.

The movie begins with a UFO steadily making its way towards Earth. It's soon revealed to be an actual alien vessel shaped like a flying saucer and the craft makes its way to Washington, D.C. to land in the middle of the President's Park Ellipse. From inside the ship emerges a humanoid figure that is later revealed to be the alien Klaatu (Michael Rennie). He claims to come in peace but when a gift for the President is mistaken for a weapon, a trigger-happy soldier accidentally shoots the alien, wounding him in the arm. Because of the threat of violence, a second figure emerges. This time it's tall humanoid robot that's revealed to be called Gort. Gort quickly destroys the weapons of the nearby soldiers until Klaatu orders him to cease.

en:The Day the Earth Stood Still is a 1951 sci...Image via WikipediaKlaatu is then taken to a nearby military hospital, where it's revealed that he actually appears to be human except for a highly accelerated rate of healing. When asked for the purpose of his visit Klaatu refuses to answer until all the world's leaders gather together as a group. But when the Secretary of Defense Harley (Frank Conroy) explains that it's impossible to arrange that, Klaatu escapes and manages to secure lodging at a boarding house. He uses the alias "Mr. Carpenter" and there he slowly learns more about human society while living with the Bobson family. At the same time, the military desperately tries to break into Klaatu's ship but it proves impervious to all of their attempts to do so. And all the while, Gort remains standing, seemingly inert for now.

A lot of older movies like this feel pretty slow when viewed with "modern" sensibilities, but I actually felt pretty drawn in by this film. Then again, that may have been just me so I can't necessarily promise the same experience for everyone who tries their luck with the movie. Back on point though, I felt it was pretty gripping given the initial mystery of Klaatu's mission and eventually his interactions with human society. Best of all, he ends up experiencing human life through the eyes of his young guide, Bobby (Billy Gray). Oh yes, there's nothing quite more innocent than a 1950's child touring you around the city.

And to be fair, the effects actually worked for me despite how hokey they look compare to movies today. The spaceship looked pretty solid as a set piece on the ground and major kudos for the iconic Gort costume. And the niftiness of how his main weapon worked was delightfully realistic - just a flash of light and then weapons disappear. There wasn't any need for cheesy ray beams as if the atmosphere was littered with dust particles everywhere.

Plus Michalel Rennie was no pushover in the acting department. With a filmography of almost 40 movies, he certainly developed a bit of a unique style for himself in these dramas, science fiction or otherwise. Strictly limiting things to his performance in this movie, I certainly appreciated the odd mix of arrogant nobility paired with curiosity to work in terms of his portrayal of Klaatu. Plus he really seemed to get a kick out of solving that massive equation on the blackboard.

The overall message of this movie seems odd when you think about it now, but naturally it made more sense in the post-WWII period. After all, not even a decade has past since the atom bomb and thus the threat of global atomic violence was forever looming. It colored a lot of the science fiction stories of the day and thus it made sense how this story turned out in the end. Still, it remains a highly provocative piece that questions the human need for violence, although I'm not sure if I advocate for the creation of robotic enforcers like Gort.

The Day The Earth Stood Still is indeed a classic of the science fiction world and remains to be one of the better ones released from that period. It gets 4 sparkly diamonds as currency since aliens are too cool for paper bills out of 5.

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