Sunday, October 2, 2011

Clyde’s Movie Palace: The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)




Directed by Robert Wise
Original Score by Bernard Hermann


Aliens have been visiting the Earth in one form or another by way of Hollywood almost nonstop for decades. Sometimes they are cute, cuddly, friendly little creatures like E.T. who only wanted to go home, while at other times they have been evil hideous creatures who descend upon Earth to conquer us with their technical superiority and so that directors like Roland Emmerich can try to wow us with a special effects extravaganza as he did in Independence Day and bore us with a predictable story line all at the same time.

Then there are aliens like Klaatu, who walk like us, talk like us, have bodies likes us, and visit us in the form of Michael Rennie with the sole purpose of letting us know that if mankind doesn't get its act together soon, we may be in for a world of extremely painful hurt. And though the special effects may be meager, this film entertains us substantially more than any film dependent on smashing aliens into a million CGI particles.

The Day the Earth Stood Still is unlike any other science fiction film made in the fifties. But it is one of a few from the decade that was more than just your run of the mill Saturday matinee B movie (or as in most cases, D movie). It was a movie that didn't rely on flesh eating creatures or alien monsters unless you count one single giant robot.   Yet it manages to captivate us every step of the way even some 60 years later.

Directed by Robert Wise, the film wastes no time in getting to the point with an intense opening sequence. There's an unidentified flying object circling the globe at a mere 4,000 miles an hour. Yes, I know that’s not Star Trek type speed but it would be hell on wheels at NASCAR.  As one famous announcer after another from all over the globe hits the airwaves with the news and the UFO is being tracked by radar, we finally see the flying saucer as it glides over Washington D.C. and lands gently in a baseball field just in time for the seventh inning stretch.

The inhabitant of the spaceship doesn't emerge immediately, as Wise chooses to build our suspense and apprehension just as the spectators and soldiers surrounding the craft must feel. In one of the great science fiction sequences ever devised with nothing more than a couple of balls of silly putty, the seamless spacecraft opens, and down the walkway emerges Klaatu (Michael Rennie), hidden by a silver space suit so that we are as unaware as everyone else is of his true physical nature. Klaatu pulls a strange looking device from inside his suit.  A soldier, thinking that the object is some sort of alien weapon, fires at Klaatu wounding him.  But not mortally.  Because that would mean the movie was over already.

It is only then that we learn that Klaatu, poor fellow, walks talks and breathes just like us, and it is also when the robot Gort emerges from the spaceship, immediately firing a laser beam destroying the weapons and artillery surrounding the craft. Klaatu utters a few mumble jumble alien type phrases which causes Gort to lower his visor down over his laser beam, and then Klaatu is taken away by the military.

Once in custody, Klaatu lets it be known that he has something important to say and that just saying it to the President won’t suffice. He must have met a few of our Commanders-in-chief over the years. He wants to talk to all the leaders of the world, all at the same time and in the same place. Of course, you know and I know that getting all the leaders of the world together to have a Boy Scout powwow at Camp Klaatu is never going to happen, even if you offer up free wienies and marshmallows while singing Way Up Here on the Triple R. Once Klaatu finds out what we already know, he decides to mingle with us meager earthlings to see what makes us tick.

Klaatu assumes the identity of Mr. Carpenter, and finds his way out into the general population landing at a local boarding house where he rents a room and meets up with Helen Benson (Patricia Neal), a widower, and her son Bobby (Billy Gray) whom Carpenter quickly befriends.

The next day Bobby shows Klaatu around D.C., including visits to The Lincoln Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery where we find out that Bobby’s father was killed during the war.   Eventually they land at the home of renown scientist (or as Bobby calls him, the smartest man in the world) Professor Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe), whom Klaatu hopes can arrange a worldwide meeting of the minds, right after he helps Barnhardt with his math.

Michael Rennie is the perfect Klaatu. He always seems subtly bemused by us earthlings and our many theories as to what his appearance really is and why he has paid us a visit including such odd ideas as that he has taken a short trip over from the Soviet Union. Come to think of it, he does look as if he may be a distant ancestor of Alexander Putin.  Who knew?

Although he tries his best to understand man's penchant for war, death, and destruction, it is a concept that Klaatu sees as having no basis in any kind of rationality. One can't help but compare him in some ways to Mr. Spock of Star Trek. Trying to dissect the causes and effects of human emotions is a never ending fruitless endeavor.  I know.  I’ve tried many times. 

Unlike Spock however, Klaatu is not beyond showing impatience and frustration with us. While he tries to find a way to deliver his message to not one country, but all countries, the single minded purpose of the U.S. military is to capture or kill him or ship him down to Mexico.  This used to be a movie cliché, but current events have now proven otherwise.  I mean, just because the guy didn’t bring his passport or green card do we have to go getting all pissy on him?

So in all likelihood that is how it would play out if such an event were to occur today, except for the fact that he’d be surrounded by teabaggers carrying signs with misspelled words and poor phrasing while Michelle Bachman cheers them on with her anti-Klaatu chants.   Either that or the congress would institute a couple of space visitor commissions to study the situation, and report the result of their findings based upon Klaatu's political persuasion, and how many banks and corporations he owned.  Oh well, wtf, I’m getting way off topic.  I do that sometimes.  Haven’t entirely ridded myself of the political steroids inhabiting my body, but after having written about that crap for seven years, it’ll take time to cleanse myself.  If ever.


It would have been easy for the film to bog down during Klaatu's wanderings around D.C., but Wise keeps things on a steady course by making such things as a visit to Arlington Cemetery touching and moving, and the visit to the Professor's home intriguing and humorous at the same time.

One can thank whoever decided to cast Billy Gray as Bobby, who does such a first-class job as Klaatu's tour guide that it not only adds immeasurably to the film, it would make one look Bobby up to be their own guide should they feel the need to tour the capital even if the capitol is nothing more than filmed backdrops as is the case here. Gray went on to play Bud in the long running sit com, Father Knows Best which was the real TV series on which the fictional TV series in the movie Pleasantville may have been based.

Patricia Neal gives a stellar but measured performance as Bobby's mother. She is drawn to Mr. Carpenter but yet is wary of his strange ways to the point where she begins to question Bobby's friendship with him.   As for Sam Jaffe, they could have called him Dr. Zorba and it wouldn’t have mattered.  But it’s the kind of role he was born to play.  And who is Dr. Zorba?  That’s why I include links, dummies.  The rest is up to you.


This version of Hermann’s score was played by the National Philharmonic Orchestra and was conducted by Hermann in 1973.

Her complete opposite is her boyfriend, Tom (Hugh Marlowe) who sees his relationship with Helen as more of an opportunity to cash in more than anything remotely having to do with hearts and flowers. It doesn't take us long to figure out that Helen is drawn to Tom because of his ability to provide a home for her and Bobby rather than any real deep everlasting emotional involvement. This romantic conflict plays itself out at what couldn’t be a more crucially inopportune moment.  But what the heck, at least she finds out what an asshole the guy is.  But poor Hugh Marlowe!  How many times during his career did he get saddled playing these slick creepy back stabbing underhanded jerks?  Then again, he’d get his own personal brand of revenge on the aliens about five years later.

For The Day the Earth Stood Still, Bernard Herrmann wrote another one of his perfect scores. By that I mean it is written in such a way as to not only increase your involvement in the proceedings, it perfectly complements every aspect of the film from the opening credits to the end. In fact, it is a score that would influence many a science fiction film for years to come. It was the first time we would hear the Theremin, but it would not be the last as it would influence soundtracks in Science Fiction films for years to come. Yet, his score for the Lincoln Memorial and Arlington Cemetery sequences discard the sci-fi notes altogether, bringing respect, sadness and solace to Klaatu and Bobby’s tour.

Keeping in mind that this was made over fifty years ago, the special effects  acquit themselves quite well. Yes, Gort looks a bit stiff, and yes thanks to a new digital transfer you can see some wires used to hold Neal up at one point along with the seam in the suit (all in the same scene), but the seamless spaceship, Gort’s Killer Ray, and the landing in DC more than make up for it. Besides, this is a story driven science fiction film, not a special effects extravaganza.  It is what it is and a product of it’s time so whatever you do, don’t let George Lucas get ahold of it.

So, what about the all important message that Klaatu traveled those 250 million miles to deliver to mankind? It has been the subject of much debate over the years, and will probably continue to be so for many years to come as long as there are message boards smothering the internet to throw your two cents into. I have my own thoughts about it, but can only say that agree or disagree, it is more or less the same message that many nations have given to one country after another on our own planet. So does this make Klaatu and his kind as bad as us or is their method entirely different with an insistence on a peaceful existence? Whichever side you fall on, the debate will continue through the ages and when any film accomplishes something of that nature I have no choice but to give it my grade which for The Day the Earth Stood Still is an A and is an undeniable classic.

As for the recent remake with Keanu Reeves, I’ll reserve judgment for another day, because as of now (September 2011) I have yet to see it in its entirety, although I have a blu-ray copy in the cabinet. I watched the first twenty minutes once, was interrupted, and have yet to return. I suppose that would be a certain indication that I may not found the first twenty minutes very compelling.  

Special effects have come a long way but sometimes they just foul up the plumbing. Part of the charm of watching the original is in its simplicity. I have nothing against remakes as long as they are a worthwhile effort to either update or bring us something new, but cramming the screen with another CGI extravaganza at the expense of a good story won’t quite cut it with me.But maybe you’ll find this trailer of the original to your liking.


I have just one question:  Are there any Republicans or teabaggers on Klaatu’s home planet?  If not, I’m so there!  For now: Gort! Klaatu barada nikto! 

1 comment:

  1. What a shame you had to get all political and ruin a good review. As for your politics, as a non-US citizen and an objective observer, I'm betting there are a lot more Republicans on Klaatu's home planet than democrats. This movie, if you missed the subtleties, is unashamedly right-wing.