(Release Date: September 28, 1951)
But back in 1951, a full quarter-century before 20th Century Fox released Star Wars, that same company released one of those very films that worked harder than Formula 409 to be both a true Science Fiction film and a smart, respectable drama with a message.
That film was The Day the Earth Stood Still, directed by Robert Wise. Luckily this movie succeeds in virtually every way in what it sets out to do. The Science Fiction element is there from the very beginning as a high-speed UFO is spotted (and reported on in news outlets worldwide) in the Earth's atmosphere as it settles down in the middle of some of the most historic areas of Washington D.C.
The message begins almost immediately afterward as this seamless flying saucer opens up to reveal an Alien Astronaut, who promptly declares that he comes in peace... and is subsequently shot down by the US Military. Now that's darn rude! Man... even E.T. got a warmer reception than that! He even came with a really cool gift for the President, too! Makes me wonder how they'd greet Santa Claus, man! Needless to say, as tends to happen when Traveling Companions are gunned down (except in Tombstone, Arizona), the Astronaut's Robot Buddy Gort (Lock Martin) gets highly pissed and starts melting the military weapons with his killer death ray eye beam! Gort... RULES.
After that he just sort of stands there, looking cool and daring anybody to mess with him or the ship!
Soon, however, the very force that was kind enough to share their bullets with the alien decides to patch up his hurt by shipping him off to Walter Reed Hospital. Kind of a... back handed favor, if you think about it. There, once the alien astronaut is unmasked, the government and his doctors discover a very human-like man who appears to be about 35 years of age (but is really in his seventies) and calls himself Klaatu (Michael Rennie, who was actually about 42 at the time). Klaatu insists that he is on a mission of peace and that he has a message for all the world leaders, one that he won't share with only one side. Klaatu first requests an audience with the United Nations to deliver his peaceful message, then requests that he move about the planet freely to better understand Earth's people. According to Mr. Harley (Frank Conroy), who represents the President, both requests are "quite impossible"!
Naturally, being that Klatuu IS at Walter Reed Hospital, he's neglected enough so that he is able to escape, take on the alias of "Mr. Carpenter" and walk among us, just as he had planned. Luckily, the man heals fast. Meanwhile the military takes to studying the now nearly motionless Gort and the space ship he rode in on. All the President's Horsemen and All the President's Men can't get a metallurgical sample or single reading of of either metal mass. Ha! Gort RULES!
While the News outlets are frantically reporting the story of the escaped "Spaceman" and Gort is casually under soldierly siege, "Mr. Klaatu Carpenter" checks into a charming little boarding house in a stolen suit and befriends the attractive Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) and her son Bobby (Billy Gray), but most certainly NOT her would-be suitor Tom (Hugh Marlowe)! Through them, Klaatu begins to understand humanity. And soon, through the great American Scientist Professor Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe), Klaatu begins to set his other plan in motion. I won't spoil what it actually is, but let's just say, it lives up to the title.
All the while, questions are put forward as to what Klaatu's mission really is, how he can do what he can do and what he intends to do with Earth. Is he the herald of an invasion or is he a space-faring liberal on an anti-war campaign? Will he destroy the world or try to save it? Will Gort say "... oilcan..."?
A great debt is owed to the inspiration for Edmund H. North's screenplay, that being Harry Bates' short story Farewell to the Master. While Bates was paid a reported pittance of five hundred bucks for the rights to this tale and more than a few liberties were taken as it was translated to the screen, the characters, their motivations and their actions still find their roots in this tale. Gort's literary counterpart "Gnut" did enjoy quite a makeover as well, but both versions are truly something to enjoy!
The cast is also to be praised here. While there are still a few moments that FEEL quite a bit like a 1950s movie or television show in the dialogue, pronunciation and delivery, Patricia Neal does a very fine job as the brave female lead, Jaffe is cool as the thinking man who seems to put the greater good before the creature comforts and even Billy Gray isn't bad as the typical fifties kiddo, all snips and snails and puppy-dog tails.
It's Michael Rennie, however, who delivers the best and most memorable performance here. What truly makes the movie is the strange dichotomy of Klaatu who is just human and handsome enough to seem like a normal old "Father Knows Best" type of guy, but just alien and confused enough to be believable as a new student of our society. On one hand he seems to be nearly omniscient, casually knowing more about math, science and medicine than our most advanced researchers, on the other he seems to be at ease spending the day sightseeing in D.C. with a kid. His character gets it right almost 100% of the time, but it's those times he doesn't quite get "being human" right that makes him, ironically, more human in his fallibility. But then we screwball people have to go and re-define fallible all over again. Klaatu is fascinating, Rennie makes him so.
But make no mistake, through all of Klaatu's wanderings, machinations and theories, Gort still has to be reckoned with and Gort has a series of secrets all his own. Lock Martin (as opposed to Lockheed Martin) was qualified to play Gort primarily because he was seven feet, seven inches tall, but he does a great job as this imposing, giant robot. True, the costume requires just a bit of suspension of disbelief to convince the audience that the plastic-wrinkling of Gort's legs is just a special, malleable metal substance, but the design itself is intriguing and the suit looks great from all angles.
There are still some drawbacks to The Day the Earth Stood Still, starting with some hard-to-help moments surrounding the opposing layers of this movie. Wise works hard to create a wise (pun intended) and thoughtful drama laded with social commentary and timely message that still works as a science fiction film. True, he succeeds, but not without compromises. Noting what (most) Science Fiction was at the time, it's clear what the studio suits required in their attempts to make this non-pulpy A-Movie appeal to the usual Saturday Matinee crowd. Still, the ultimate result does work quite well, in spite of the occasional pinprick plot hole and looming question. The potentially heavy-handed symbolism and societal indictments are handled quite well, especially as compared to other films of the age and genre.
Still, there is the inevitable "dated" nature of its cold-war era subject. While the message still stands, it might have to be rephrased just a bit for modern audiences. Further, it's interesting to note how the same themes of paranoia have actually increased over the past half-century or more. The film depicts a Washington D.C. with open streets that are now closed, open areas, which are now secured and the ability to walk right up to a guarded area (staffed by two flunkie guards) that today would be locked down like the script to a Star Trek sequel. As much as things have changed, one might muse that perhaps ol' Klaatu was on to something! I have to wonder what The Day the Earth Stood Still might look like in the post 9/11 world. Then again, I don't really have to wonder too long, in that (at the time of this writing) the 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still is coming out tomorrow.
Before I close, let me just add "Klaatu Barada Nikto!" (yeah, that originated here) and let me remind you that Gort rules! So does The Day the Earth Stood Still, which rates Four Stars out of Five! Klaatu is Cool, Gort is Great! While this might not appeal to everyone (some pieces of the message might not sit well with running dog lackey conservatives or even some liberals who are chilled by "the Patriot Act"), this is one of those true definitions of what "Classic Science Fiction" really means. Films like this helped to make When Worlds Collide, War of the Worlds and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers possible and presumably profitable and undeniably helped set the stage for far-future hits like ID-4, V and even E.T. The Extra Terrestrial. Whatever tomorrow brings, be it a quality remake or another travesty that Klaatu and Gort themselves might warn against, be here for The Day the Earth Stood Still! The original was very original! See you, as we hear the call of Klaatu, in the next reel.
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