Day the Earth Stood Still, The (1951)
Published by The Massie Twins
Release Date: September 28th, 1951 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Robert Wise Actors: Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal, Hugh Marlowe, Sam Jaffe, Frances Bavier
saucer-like spacecraft lands in Washington, D.C., capturing the attention of denizens across the globe. Humanoid emissary Klaatu (Michael Rennie) emerges with an immediate introduction of peace and good will – alongside his intimidating, hulking, 8-foot robot bodyguard Gort – but is accidentally shot while presenting an exotic gift. As the military takes control of the situation by rushing Klaatu to a hospital and confining him to a cell, the strange visitor decides he must intermingle with other humans to help him with his ultimate mission: to warn the leaders of the world that total obliteration awaits if human aggression and violence are not put to a halt.
After escaping from his quarters and assuming the name of Mr. Carpenter, Klaatu rents a room adjacent to Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) and her inquisitive young son Bobby (Billy Gray). He interacts with them to experience the decency and reasoning humankind can exhibit, which the strict, unfriendly, regimented U.S. war machine could not offer. When Klaatu arranges a meeting with the top scientists in the nation, jealousy and paranoia from Helen’s boyfriend (Hugh Marlowe) lead to further military intervention.
Klaatu doesn’t want to clarify his assignment to individuals, but he has no problem detailing his advanced methods of medicine, his 130-year life expectancy, or his knowledge of space travel. His people have learned to live without war and violence; presidential advisor Mr. Harley (Frank Conroy) admits that mankind has not learned to live without stupidity. The government’s ability to solve the escalating situation of utilizing deadly weaponry is questioned, alluding to the Cold War paranoia, political turmoil, and general economic unrest of the post-WWII era. But Klaatu readily provides a solution, with a demonstration of Earth’s dire predicament necessary to dictate the seriousness of the situation. The complete neutralization of electricity, which literally causes the Earth to stand still (giving substantial meaning to the title), is imposed over a 30-minute blackout – resulting in a panicked, nationwide manhunt and the quarantining of the city.
In the 1951 classic, alien visitor Klaatu arrives simply to deliver a message – one that leaves the fate of the planet in the hands of the people yet cautions them to govern with moral proprieties. In the 2008 remake, Klaatu arrives for a different reason: he must pass judgment over the guilty as well as carry out an execution. The differences in his purpose cause both films to head toward drastically contrasting plot directions. But what is most surprising about the update is the removal of almost everything creative, allegorical, and thought-provoking devised in the original.
Writer Edmund H. North’s adaptation (of the short story “Farewell to the Master” by Harry Bates) proves that an intelligent, well-written script can easily make up for a lack in visual luster. A few visible wires, a crash of cymbals to replace onscreen intensity, and a clunky robot design (which is now famously iconic) are quickly forgiven as an engaging storyline and memorable characters fill the void of what would nowadays be computer-augmented special effects. While some accuse “The Day the Earth Stood Still” of preaching messages over delivering thrills, it’s a frequently recognized science-fiction staple of alien invaders, the near-miss engaging of failsafe switches for out-of-control technological dependence, and a prescient warning of the decline of civilized international cooperation.
– The Massie Twins
This was not an innocent choice. America’s most famous brain was a proponent of world government and opponent of loyalty oaths, reviled as a Communist fellow-traveler for being a co-sponsor of the Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace held at the Waldorf-Astoria in 1949. Encouraged by Klaatu, Dr. Barnhardt organizes an international peace conference similar to the Waldorf conclave — a gathering frequently invoked during the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings on Hollywood that took place while “The Day the Earth Stood Still” was shooting second-unit scenes on the Mall. (The name of Jaffe, a liberal activist in Actors Equity, came up as well; subsequently blacklisted, he would not appear in another movie until 1958.)
Obviously and unfashionably progressive, “The Day the Earth Stood Still” was the brainchild of the producer Julian Blaustein, whose first film was the 1950 brotherhood western “Broken Arrow.” As with “Broken Arrow,” which opened while “The Day the Earth Stood Still” was in pre-production (a few months into the Korean War), Blaustein had a purpose; the movie, he told the press, was an argument in favor of a “strong United Nations.” While the film’s director, Wise, was also politically liberal (years later, he described himself as a left-wing sympathizer who had not joined enough front groups to come under government scrutiny), his main contributions were stylistic. Wise had directed two low-key atmospheric chillers for the producer Val Lewton and before that served as Orson Welles’s editor. “The Day the Earth Stood Still” shows the influence of both: the movie’s relative naturalism is accentuated by adroit location work and, in some scenes, real radio reporters. The premise, of course, was Wellesian, and Wise recruited Welles’s brilliant composer Bernard Herrmann to provide a moody, theremin-enriched score.
Variety would praise the locations that gave “The Day the Earth Stood Still” “an almost documentary flavor,” but Wise was documenting something more than Washington landmarks. The movie exudes topical hysteria; paranoia is palpable, and the spectacle of the nation’s capital under martial law seems all too probable. The movie’s Christian allegory — in which, using the name John Carpenter, Klaatu is twice put to death and resurrected — was not part of the Harry Bates story on which the film was based, but was added by its screenwriter, Edmund H. North.
According to North, neither Blaustein nor Wise got his “private little joke”; it was recognized only by the industry watchdogs who insisted on a line asserting Klaatu’s recognition that not Gort but only the Almighty could bring someone back to life.
Religious heresy shouldn’t be an issue in the remake, although online chatter suggests some concern regarding the ability of 20th Century Fox to resurrect a beloved movie successfully. Both the new Klaatu, Mr. Reeves, and the young director, Scott Derrickson, whose previous movies include “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” and the fifth installment in the “Hellraiser” series, have assured fans that Gort will be seen and “Klaatu barada nikto” heard.)
Commending “The Day the Earth Stood Still” for its seriousness, a Los Angeles Times critic fretted in 1951 that “certain subversive elements” might co-opt the movie’s philosophy. Perhaps, although The Daily Worker wasn’t much impressed, noting that the movie hardly inspired its audience to work toward peace: “That, it appears, is a job for men from other planets.”
Be that as it may, viewers from other nations were pleased to see “The Day the Earth Stood Still” as a plea for cooperation. Hollywood’s foreign press awarded it a special Golden Globe for “promoting international understanding.” And in Paris, the young critics of Cahiers du Cinéma were also taken with the film, which the screenwriter and director Pierre Kast hailed as the most “improbable” American production since Charles Chaplin’s “Monsieur Verdoux,” a “secret cry of agony, the expression of a terrible vertigo” and “almost literally stunning.”
Kast praised the movie’s moral relativism, citing the scene in which an aide to the American president explains to Klaatu that Earth is divided between the forces of good and evil and “we are the forces of good,” only to be brushed off by the alien’s disdainful “I’m not interested in such foolishness.” “The Day the Earth Stood Still” does allow for a more hard-nosed reading, with Gort’s capacity for mayhem embodying the doctrine of mutually assured destruction. But most of the movie’s fans have extrapolated an internationalist message — including at least one United States president.
According to Lou Cannon, one of Ronald Reagan’s biographers, Reagan was so stirred by the notion that extraterrestrial invasion would trump national differences that he floated the scenario upon meeting Mikhail Gorbachev at Geneva in 1985. This departure from script flummoxed Reagan’s staff — not to mention the Soviet general secretary. Mr. Cannon writes that, well acquainted with what he called the president’s interest in “little green men,” Colin L. Powell, at the time the national security adviser, was convinced that the proposal had been inspired by “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” Reagan revisited the idea two years later in a speech at the United Nations: “I occasionally think how quickly our differences worldwide would vanish if we were facing an alien threat from outside this world.”
This line may not apply to the remake, which, to judge from its trailer, is more concerned with threat of catastrophic climate change and the unbridled powers of computer-generated effects. Still, given America’s current diplomatic isolation, it would not be surprising to hear Reagan’s sentiment, or one very much like it, articulated by our new maximum leader.Continue reading the main story