20 Dec

Klaatu! Barada! Nik*cough*cough*cough* The Day The Earth Stood Still.

Posted by Bryan White | Saturday December 20, 2008 | Reviews

There are concrete examples that I can point to as to why I love science fiction so much, both literary and cinematic.  The Day The Earth Stood Still was way before my time, obviously, and my love affair with the genre actually begins at a drive-in screening of The Empire Strikes Back in Vestal, New York.  But if you’re an obsessive like me, you know that the contemporary choices of movies only last you so long before you start working your way back through time in order to find the trail head that leads up to that point where you fell in love in the first place.

For my money, though, the science fiction genre in terms of movies starts right here. The Day The Earth Stood Still. 1951. Robert Wise. Released in a two-disc special edition just in time to coincide with the release of the remake. I toiled with this review. How do you critique a movie that is a certified classic? The blueprint by which the science fiction movie of the 50’s and 60’s was to follow? The cultural weight of this movie has been explored and re-explored, finding social criticism and religious allegory on separate occasions?  All I could possibly have to offer is my menu of curse words scattered among an already biased opinion.

It would seem that the entire world is tracking the movement of an incredibly fast moving craft that is quickly nearing earth.  Panic ensues as a glowing saucer descends from the sky and lands in a park in Washinton, D.C., containing two passengers.  A man in a space suit emerges, assuring the gathered crowd that he comes in peace.  A robot emerges when our alien is shot by a twitchy army guy.  His visor lifts and he proceeds to vaporize every weapon in the vicinity. Bad move, Earth. The alien is Klaatu, the killing machine in the cast iron diaper is Gort. Klaatu is here on a mission of peace, to warn Earth that their development of atomic weapons is an already dangerous thing but planets all over the galaxy are fearing that they’ll soon equip space craft with nuclear power and take the danger to them. The solution is to threaten Earth with total annihilation at the hands of Gort unless we disarm.  Of course, it’s never that simple, is it?

The Day The Earth Stood Still, aside from being the most important flying saucer movie of all time, exists in the same socially relevant space as other socially critical genre movies such as Dawn of the Dead and Videodrome.  It would be unfair to say that it’s the first movie to make a strong metaphorical point for or against something but its influence of directors such as George A. Romero and John Carpenter is undeniable.  The widespread metaphorical quality of science fiction movies from this time owe much to The Day The Earth Stood Still, which broadcast a particularly bold pacifist message in a time defined by war.  Barely five years had passed since the end of the Second World War and the beginning of this production. We had dropped two massively devastating bombs on Japan. The Korean War was in full effect by this time and douche bag supreme, Senator Joseph McCarthy was spearheading the House UnAmerican Activities Committee to root out the communist threat lurking in the United States at that very moment.  Fuck the Ozzie and Harriet vibe that most people prefer to evoke when thinking about this era. The 50’s sucked. So along comes quasi-communist screenwriter, Edmund North, with a movie that points out everything wrong with the United States at that time and entertained the masses with a film that alleges that humans can be a whole planet full of murderous assholes but each one of us has a compassionate quality that could potentially save the world from itself.

And that is why I love science fiction movies.  The Day The Earth Stood Still is naive and portrays a simplified vision of how we must all learn to get along or actually use these doomsday devices that we, for some reason, developed.

Good stuff. Aside from the beautiful message of peace, Robert Wise’s masterpiece of science fiction comes chock full of fantastic special effects (for the time), entertaining performances from the cast, a trail blazing theremin score by one of cinema’s finest composers, Bernard Herrmann and a tightly paced plot that is light on action but wracked with paranoia and suspicion. Modern filmmakers could take a page from the playbook of Edmund North, whose screenplay is tight and wastes no time at all.

This 2-disc special edition is a treat for science fiction fans as well.  A second disc of supplemental materials adds context to the movie, giving us viewers a good idea of why a flying saucer movie made sense at the time. The feature disc also contains a lot to love.  You get fascinating featurettes about the theremin, a reading of Harry Bates’ original short story that inspired The Day The Earth Stood Still, Farewell To The Master, the isolate score, a study of science fiction as a metaphor, a remarkably skeptical history of UFO sightings and abductions, a short about author Harry Bates, a short about Edmund North and North’s half hour No Nukes documentary, Race To Oblivion, starring Burt Lancaster.

You’ll never find a more complete package or loving tribute to one of Hollywood’s finest achievements.  Science fiction movies have a tendency to be dismissed thanks to the cash-grab antics of Robot Monster and Teenagers From Outerspace, just to name a couple among thousands of trashy movies, but The Day The Earth Stood Still is the one that started it all.

1 Comment 

  1. December 21, 2008 3:57 pm

    Retroman Steve

    I know I am in a huge minority on this one but I think the original version of The Day the Earth Stood Still is over-rated. I rate is a good twilight Zone episode, but not one of the all time greatest sci-fi films ever. There just wasn’t much dynamic to the story and the twist was nothing extraordinary for me. Maybe I should give it another try.


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