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Dissecting the Classics – The Day the Earth Stood Still

January 25, 2019 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard
The Day the Earth Stood Still

Welcome to Dissecting the Classics . In this column, I analyze films that are almost universally loved and considered to be great. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.

The Day the Earth Stood Still

Wide Release Date: September 18, 1951
Directed By: Robert Wise
Written By: Edmund H. North
Produced By: Julian Blaustein
Cinematography By: Leo Tover
Edited By: William H. Reynolds
Music By: Bernard Herrmann
Production Company: 20th Century Fox
Distributed By: Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp.
Michael Rennie as Klaatu
Patricia Neal as Helen Benson
Billy Gray as Bobby Benson
Sam Jaffe as Professor Jacob Barnhardt

What Do We All Know?

The 1950s were an important time in the history of science fiction movies. While the genre wasn’t invented in this time (Frankenstein and Metropolis stand out as key examples of early sci fi films), it was this decade where it really picked up steam. I imagine a lot of this can be attributed to it being the early age of the atomic bomb and the space race; with general audiences aware of these technological breakthroughs, it makes sense that they were interested in sci-fi. And with the Cold War in full swing, there were plenty of thought provoking discussion to be had in the form of science fiction – the genre is largely defined by its themes of hope and dread about humanity’s future.

Today’s film is one of earliest 1950’s classics, and one which undoubtedly set the tone for what was to come. It received an unusually high budget for a genre film, and the screenwriter and director looked at the film as a chance to have a serious discussion about themes like war, paranoia, the very idea of human nature, and where it was all leading us. The Day the Earth Stood Still wasn’t just a Hollywood spectacle – it was a timely movie that spoke to its audience and continues to be relevant today.

What Went Right?

To me, the hallmark of 1950’s science fiction is that it takes a single core idea and explores it thoroughly. “What if radiation caused ants to become giants?” “What if a scientist swapped parts of his body with a fly?” “What if alien plants started replacing humans in a small town?” As opposed to 1970s or 1980’s sci-fi, these movies are often contained to a small number of settings, a few special effects setpieces, and were mostly driven by dialogue. The focus was on characters discussing the scientific possibilities that were being explored, the moral ramifications of the events, and speculating about how we should act if this crisis were real. The Day the Earth Stood Still is a great example of this: what would we do if an alien came to Earth with a message for us that would potentially save us from destruction?

An extrapolation of Harry Bates’ short story Farewell to the Master, this film starts with a flying saucer landing in the U.S. capitol and a humanoid alien named Klaatu arriving with a message for the world’s leaders. Unfortunately, arranging a peaceful meeting among earthlings is a tall task, and Klaatu finds himself on the run to avoid the U.S. government and to learn more about humans and their suspicions. Complicating the matter is that the ship is guarded by Gort, an imposing robot who answers aggression with lethal force. Are the aliens here to help us, destroy us, or both? Well, if you don’t know, you should take 90 minutes and watch movie first because this is about to get spoiler heavy.

Klaatu’s purpose in coming to earth is to issue us a warning. With world powers now having access to atomic weapons and working towards space travel, they have captured the attention of the aliens Klaatu represents, who have lived in peace and prosperity by giving the robots absolute authority to prevent aggression and war. If the Earth provides a threat to that peace, they will be obliterated, but Klaatu hopes that we can set aside our differences and eventually join in their society. Obviously the film addresses themes of cold war paranoia, condemning mankind for our petty differences, suspicions of other people’s motives, and our seeming need to use violence as an answer to these problems. These themes are favorites of mine, as I often feel overwhelmed by world politics and fail to see the basic good in most people. I imagine many people need similar reality checks from time to time.

Another aspect that works very well in the film is Klaatu’s role as a Christ stand in. While not outright explicit, the film is unambiguous in the metaphor. Klaatu came from the sky with a message for all mankind, giving us a choice between salvation and annihilation. He is wise and kind but also condemns humanity’s violent and suspicious nature. He befriends a child, is killed by government officials and is brought back to life temporarily. And he also goes by “Carpenter” as his human alias. It’s not subtle, but it works quite well. The film reimagines how Christ and his message of peace might have been received in a modern setting, since human nature hasn’t really evolved to keep pace with our technological advancement. It brings a religious and philosophical aspect to the scientific and ethical discussion, and I think it bridges the gap in a way that respects all fronts. Not an easy thing to do, but necessary if the film is to adhere to its own high-minded ideals.

What Went Wrong?

Speaking of those ideals, I do think one of the problems with the film is the idea that the robots keep the peace among Klaatu’s society, and use lethal force to prevent all out war. While Klaatu condemns violence among Earth’s governments, he submits to the violence of his own. It’s a pretty big hypocrisy that throws a monkey wrench in the film’s message. Is choosing to turn away from war because of the threat of obliteration from an outside force really a choice? Does the peace mean anything if we are oppressed by those who have authority to gun us down for acting subversive? I think the implications are problematic and potentially dangerous.

On a less serious note, I think Gort the robot is a minor problem for the movie. Contemporary reviews described the robot as “oddly unmenacing”, but I will call the barebones costume silly and unconvincing. The lighting, camera work and especially Bernard Herrmann’s score do their best to pick up the slack, but I just can’t buy Gort as a legitimate threat.

And In Summary…

While the film’s message falls apart under scrutiny, The Day the Earth Stood Still has its heart in the right place, and is a great example of science fiction as serious philosophical discussion. The sci-fi premise is engaging, the characters are likable and the stakes are very high, making for a story that commands our attention. It deftly manages heavy themes of political turmoil, war paranoia, technological responsibility and even religious duty into one cohesive ideology; that humans are better when we work together instead of fighting each other. It’s a simple notion, but one that should never go out of fashion.

Klaatu barada nikto.

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Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, The Matrix, Batman (1989), Casablanca, Goldfinger, X2, King Kong (1933), Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Dark Crystal, The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Godfather, The Godfather, Part II, The Silence of the Lambs, Alien, Aliens, Casino Royale, Superman: The Movie, Superman II, Batman (1966), The Maltese Falcon, Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, 12 Angry Men, Aladdin, The Wizard of Oz, Dial M For Murder, Godzilla (1954), The Hurt Locker, The Breakfast Club, Iron Man, The Shining, Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut, Blade Runner, Rosemary’s Baby, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Princess Bride, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Toy Story, Star Wars – Part 1, Star Wars – Part 2, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Die Hard, Spirited Away, Airplane!, Dirty Dancing, RoboCop, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Captain America: The First Avenger, In the Heat of the Night, West Side Story, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Rocky, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Sixth Sense, The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Clerks, Goodfellas, The Avengers, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, Frozen, Jaws, The Omen, The Incredibles, Life of Brian, Escape From New York, Independence Day, Vacation, Ghostbusters, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Hook, Men in Black, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Double Indemnity, Lethal Weapon, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, No Country for Old Men, The Exorcist, Psycho, Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Haunting, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King, Citizen Kane, Mary Poppins, Christmas Vacation, The Iron Giant, The Secret of NIMH, Duck Soup, Unbreakable

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