In a previous blog I listed what I believe are the most influential Science Fiction Films of the 1950’s . The first of those films that we looked at was Destination Moon, the first major Sci-Fi film to go into production in 1950. Next up is the 1951 classic The Day The Earth Stood Still, starring Michael Renee, Patricia Neal and Sam Jaffe, and directed by Star Trek the Motion Picture’s Robert Wise. This wonderful film should not be confused with the 2008 remake starring Keanu Reeves. (That film only made the audience stand still!)
The day the Earth Stood Still tells the story of Klatuu, an alien visitor who comes to Earth with a warning that should mankind take his aggressive ways into space, our planet will be reduced to a burned out cinder. It seems that where Klatuu comes from there is an alliance of planets who have eliminated war and enforce the peace with a race of unstoppable robots. Of course no sooner does Klatuu land and offer his hand in friendship than he is shot by a jumpy soldier. At this point Gort (the previously mentioned unstoppable robot) reduces several tanks and guns to …well nothing.
Klatuu is taken to Walter Reed Hospital to have his wound treated and at this time requests a meeting with all of Earth’s leaders. He is told that this would be impossible due to the planetary xenophobia that exists among the nations. Of course Klatuu has a hard time understanding such obvious stupidity and strikes out on his own to learn more about humanity. He eventually befriends a young widow and her son as well as a prominent scientist. Through a series of chases and his own resurrection Klattuu eventually delivers his message before returning to space. Live together in peace, or die.
Klaatu addresses scientists assembled outside his spaceship, explaining that humanity's penchant for violence and first steps into space have caused concern among the other space-going races, who have created a race of robot enforcers including Gort and given them absolute power to stifle any aggression. He warns that if the people of Earth threaten to extend their violence into space, then the robots will destroy Earth, adding that "The decision rests with you." He then enters the spaceship and departs.
Given the times that this film was made (the very height of the Cold War), and anti-war film is nothing short of astounding. Producer Julian Blaustein set out to make a film that illustrated the fear and suspicion that characterized the early Atomic Age. He reviewed over 200 science fiction short stories and novels in search of a storyline that could be used, as the genre was well suited for a metaphorical discussion of such grave issues.
The Day the Earth Stood Still is a perfect example of what makes great science fiction cinema. It is not special effects, monsters or production values. It is thought provoking writing. Science Fiction has been described as the theater of ideas. And this film uses a sci-fi setting to discuss xenophobia, politics, science and even the death and resurrection of Christ. The Day The Earth Stood Still is Science Fiction as allegory, which is a formula that Gene Roddenberry would often employ in such Star Trek Episodes as Balance Of Terror, A Private Little War and If This Be Your Last Battlefield. Great science fiction provokes thought and reflection. By using Klatuu as an outsider who can observe humanity in a dispassionate manner the film holds up a mirror to the audience that shows the collective paranoia of the early Cold War era.
Great Science Fiction films are also entertaining and exciting. The Day the Earth Stood Still is all of that and more. The film has a brisk pace and is extremely well acted. Robert Wise made a point of using actual Washington DC locations and even real life reporters of the day to play themselves to give the movie an overall sense of reality. The viewer it instantly transported to a world that FEELS consistent and quite real. There is no need for extravagant special effects to sell the “sci-fi” of the movie. This is a lesson that was obviously lost on the makers of the 2008 version of the film that really only kept ht title and the image of the robot Gort.
The Day the Earth Stood Still is as striking today as well as it was in 1951. It is considered among film historians to be one of the three or four greatest films of the genre and remains very influential. The film was attacked from some quarters, due to actor Sam Jaffe's politics. Jaffe, a liberal, was listed as a performer sympathetic to communism. The film's explicit message of peace, in combination with its dark outlook regarding human society, struck a chord with audiences, earning it lasting acclaim. The movie is ranked seventh in Arthur C. Clarke's List of the best Science-Fiction films of all time. In 1995, The Day the Earth Stood Still was selected for preservation as "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." In 2008, it was voted as the fifth best science-fiction film ever made as part of the AFI’s Top Ten list.
Next – Forbidden Planet