The time: early 1970’s, midnight
The place: an ordinary living room in Oklahoma.
The scene: A young teenager crouches in front of the family TV set. He has draped a blanket over the front of the television to hide its glow from his sleeping parents. The volume of the TV is set so low that the youngster has to keep his ear close to the speaker to hear anything. He knows that if he’s caught staying up late, especially to watch a science-fiction movie guaranteed to “warp his brain”, as his father puts it, he will surely catch serious heckey-doodle.
He’s willing to risk it, though. The film is The Day the Earth Stood Still. The boy has never seen it before, and it will change him–
This movie is, in my opinion, with the possible exception of Korda’s Things to Come, the first great, modern science-fiction film. Destination Moon came out the previous year, but it is little more than a how-to manual on spaceflight, despite (or perhaps because of) the involvement of Robert Heinlein. The Day the Earth Stood Still, on the other hand, is a profound tale of humanity’s danger and possible fate.
Directed by Robert Wise (director of such little-known films as West Side Story, The Sound of Music, and The Andromeda Strain), it is a cautionary tale of an alien come to warn humanity, newly equipped with nuclear weapons and on the verge of space flight, that they must give up their warring ways, or face preemptive extermination by a galactic community that means humanity no harm, but cannot brook a deadly threat in their midst. In the process the alien (Michael Rennie) learns some things about human beings– not only our capacity for obstinate stupidity and parochialism, but also our capacity for love and generosity.
The film starred Michael Rennie, Hugh Marlowe, and a young Patricia Neal. Every one of them earned their salary. But it was Michael Rennie’s Klaatu who owned the film, with his wise but naive alien trying to comprehend these odd humans. In a way, his performance foreshadows another fish-out-of-water alien visitor, Jeff Bridges’ character in Starman (1984). Klaatu is wise, but he is not all-knowing, and his mission to warn humanity nearly fails, until he receives the aid of the Earth woman Helen (Neal).
In contrast to most other science-fiction films of the 1950’s, with their heavy-handed metaphors of the Cold War and Communism, The Day the Earth Stood Still is almost Zen-like in its approach. Almost all the violence in the film is committed by the US government against Klaatu (Gort, Klaatu’s robot companion, shows us just enough of his capabilities to prove he is, indeed, one bad mutha on a leash). The fuddled American authorities fumble and stumble in their handling of Klaatu, an early counter-cultural assertion of the principle that the Establishment is basically clueless.
The Day the Earth Stood Still was the first science-fiction film that really had an idea at its core, rather than whiz-bang futurism– the idea that humanity had to leave its childhood of war and division behind. And it was conveyed, in the main, with a light hand that focused on little details to carry its message– Klaatu’s reaction to a music-box remains one of my favorites. At the same time, it was painfully realistic in its portrayal of how human beings react, as officialdom, the press, and ordinary people, to the unknown, including the primitive, live “radio-television” newscasts and reporters who want to sensationalize the story.
Needless to say, I was the kid crouched under the blanket in front of the television. Seeing The Day the Earth Stood Still changed the way I viewed the genre of science-fiction, it changed my understanding of how a story is told, and it changed my standard for science-fiction movies– a standard that, sadly, few films since have met. The Day the Earth Stood Still is, quite simply, a classic that holds up even today (of course, Hollywood had to go remake it, in 2008. Don’t bother). The Day the Earth Stood Still is one of those essential films that define science-fiction cinema.
And the really great part is, I don’t have to hide under a blanket to watch it anymore.
Future posts on films that inspire me– Aliens, Wizards, and, yes, Things to Come, among others.