A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 430 – The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) – May 4th, 2011

I realize that today is Intergalactic Star Wars Day, but we’ve done all of our Star Wars movies already and we weren’t about to go track down the Christmas special. So we decided instead to pop in one of our other recent purchases, a classic we somehow hadn’t bought before. It’s got a reputation for being one of the best science fiction movies ever made. It’s certainly well known. Heck, it’s mentioned in Science Fiction Double Feature at the beginning of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which I couldn’t stop singing in my head through most of the movie. Which, I admit, is a problem.

I think I’ve done myself a disservice here. I hadn’t seen this movie prior to tonight because, well, did I really need to? After all, I’ve seen a ton of fifties science fiction at this point in my life. And this one is so well known, I didn’t have to see it to know the plot and the intent and so on. There are a whole bunch of classics I’ve sort of bypassed either by accident or design, but I know what they are and what they refer to. On the flip side of that, I’ve seen some truly horrible schlocky 50s science fiction movies. It’s thoroughly ridiculous, but there you have it.

Fortunately, I’ve now got a chance to redeem myself and perhaps earn back some geek cred by watching as many of the classics as we can get our hands on. So it was very nice indeed to finally actually sit down and watch this from beginning to end. It’s been referenced and lampooned and analyzed a million times by now, in a million places, which is why I’m glad I’ve now seen it for myself. It’s not that I never got the references, but I like to have personal knowledge of the callback. And it is an excellent movie that deserves its reputation and actually had a couple of surprises for me, which was nice.

First surprise: While I knew the basic plot of the movie (alien comes to Earth to warn against violence and atomic weapons, implying that the galactic community won’t let humanity endanger anyone else and will destroy us if necessary – alien is persecuted and chased by the military, his warnings unheeded by many and heard by few) I hadn’t caught many of the particulars. For one, the alien, Klaatu, befriends a boy and his mother who live in the boarding house he ends up in. And that by itself isn’t a surprise. But when he asks the boy who the smartest and most powerful person on Earth is, the boy leads him to a scientist. And you know, I like that. The military powers in this movie? Are decidedly not the good guys. They’re not necessarily the bad guys either, but they’re portrayed as so set in their ways and unable to not see a threat in anything unusual. I hadn’t been expecting that. I had expected the anti-atomic message, but the view that the military needed to ask questions first and perhaps hold off on the shooting indefinitely? Interesting. And paired with a pro-science message. I like that anti-atomic here didn’t necessarily mean science as a whole was evil. Instead scientists are shown to be the ones who hold the future of the Earth in their hands.

Second surprise: Holy crap, there are people of color in this movie. Okay, none of them are named characters and they don’t get lines, but there are multiple people of color! On screen! And not in the position of maid or housekeeper or driver or janitor or exotic alien or dancer or the painfully short list of unpleasant stereotypes. No, they’re just regular people in the crowd of onlookers during the flying saucer’s arrival or the eventual chases. And it may seem like a small thing, but I look for things like that in movies from this time period. And part of the movie’s whole point is that Klaatu’s message isn’t just for one group of people. It’s for everyone. And in many movies of this time ‘everyone’ meant white and financially comfortable. There’s a key point in the movie where Klaatu reads about the Emancipation Proclamation. There should be more than middle class white Americans on the screen here and I’d want a hell of a lot more from a modern movie but I’ll take a few non-stereotyped crowd shots in this one.

Third surprise: Tom. Our female lead, Helen Benson, has been seeing insurance salesman Tom for some time now, apparently. And she quite likes him and they go out to the pictures together while someone at the boarding house keeps an eye on Helen’s son, Bobby. Tom is portrayed as pushy and stubborn right from the start. I was fascinated by how obvious it was that he was going to turn out to be a problem. The movie makes no attempt to really get you to like the guy and there’s a good reason for it, since he plays right into the military mindset later on, giving up Klaatu while ignoring Helen’s pleas for reason.

Overall I was really quite impressed with so many of the things I mentioned above. The focus on reason and discussion and critical thinking as opposed to blind reaction and aggression. It’s at the same time pessimistic and idealistic. Pessimistic in that it has a pretty low view of the world as it was in the late 1940s/early 1950s but idealistic in that it seemed to fully believe that things could change so long as reason prevailed. And I like that! I like that this movie has that sort of message. It’s a good one and I quite like that it can co-exist with the religious allegory many see in the movie.

It helps that the movie is also well made and well acted. I loved Michael Rennie as Klaatu. He’s got this fantastically angular face that is certainly human, but different enough that he makes a good humanoid alien. And he carries off the role without coming across as smugly superior or menacing. He’s curious and frustrated and I think Rennie portrayed that well. I liked Patricia Neal as Helen, even if she did admit after the fact that she thought this was yet another schlocky flying saucer flick and didn’t take it seriously. Even so, she has some great moments where she’s putting it all together. Heck, I even liked Billy Gray as Bobby, who has a role I’m more used to seeing in Japanese monster movies (the super kid who befriends the monster/alien). He’s totally not insufferable and he’s got some good lines and interactions with Klaatu. It’s a good cast overall. And then there’s the actual filmmaking, which has some wonderful pieces of footage and classic shots. I was particularly impressed with how well the footage in Washington worked, seeing as none of the main cast was ever in Washington.

Overall I was impressed by the movie. Of course, I expected to enjoy it and I expected it to be impressive in comparison to its contemporaries, but it impressed me in ways I wasn’t expecting and I like that. It’s wonderful to have seen it and I feel silly for missing it for so many years. It’s not like it’s something that passed me by in the theaters. It’s been around a lot longer than I have. So now I’ve seen it and I can even better understand references to it and feel even more confident in passing up any opportunity to watch the remake. Sorry, Keanu, I think the original nailed it. No remake necessary.

May 4, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | 1 Comment

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

May 4, 2011

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

Last year for Star Wars Day (May the Fourth) we started our week of Star Wars movies. This year we decided to watch another classic sci-fi movie. One of the greatest sci-fi classics of all time, really.

I don’t feel that there’s much new I can say about this movie. It’s been admired and praised by millions over the last sixty years. Everybody and their grand-dad has talked about the obvious allegorical references and the cold war tensions that inspire the plot. There’s a reason, though, that this movie has accumulated so many accolades over they years. It’s a damned good movie, with fantastic direction and visuals, a charismatic hero, and a message that is no less powerful for being so blatantly obvious.

I doubt there is anybody who watches movies that doesn’t know the plot of this movie. Amanda had not seen it until today, and I’m sure she could have rattled it off to you before we even put it in. That’s because it’s an exceptionally simple plot. An alien space craft lands in Washington D.C. and the mild mannered alien Klaatu steps out of it with his menacing robot Gort. Klaatu demands to speak with all the leaders of Earth and is told that the many petty conflicts that define politics on Earth make this ambition impossible. He breaks out of the hospital where he is being held by the army and tries to fit in with some regular human people, befriending a precocious kid named Bobby and his mother Helen. Klaatu decides to attempt to gather the greatest scientific minds instead of the politicians since they are more likely to listen to reason, and as proof of his superior power arranges a demonstration of how completely helpless the Earth is when confronted by his advanced alien technology. Unfortunately before he can attend this meeting of great minds he is killed by soldiers who are desperate after his little Earth-stopping stunt to end his one-man invasion. But it’s okay because Gort fetches his corpse and reanimates it so that he can deliver his warning: stop being so violent or else aliens will turn the Earth to a burnt out cinder rather than let Humanity’s ways threaten the rest of the universe.

It’s a hokey plot. Indeed We’ve already watched a far more cheesy movie that uses the same basic premise – that of re-animating the dead to warn the people of Earth about their “stupid, stupid minds.” Clearly Ed Wood was inspired by this film, as were so many others. (The many references to this movie in pop culture are proof of it’s impact – from the Globetrotter’s ship in Futurama to Ash’s incantation in Army of Darkness.) But where this could have been a cheesy and silly sci-fi romp in other hands director Robert Wise actually crafts a surprisingly well made movie from this hokey premise.

Part of it is in the exceptional special effects and production design. From Gort to the saucer this movie is packed with great visual accomplishments. The scene of the saucer landing, for example, with its shadow sweeping over the trees and the tiny fleeing people below as it approaches the baseball diamond where it eventually settles. Those are special effects decades ahead of their time. The simple menace of Gort’s raised visor and the deadly light within… it not only makes him a sinister and unstoppable force but I can’t quite figure out how they accomplished it in the days long before blue-screens and digital effects.

Another thing this movie has going for it is Michael Rennie’s performance as Klaatu. He’s such a benign and sympathetic alien. It’s so much fun to see him interacting with Bobby – showing his naivete and at the same time his wisdom. Rennie plays his character with such a sly wit. he has a sort of tolerant and long-suffering attitude. He doesn’t really need to say anything about what fools these petty Humans are – we can see it in his eyes.

Then there’s the shot composition and direction in general. I last watched this movie as a teenager and I remembered it pretty much perfectly, but what I didn’t appreciate at that time was the deft way that Wise used light and shadow to tell his story. Klaatu, when masquerading as Mr. Carpenter, comes to a simple boarding house looking for a room to stay in and he is mostly obscured by shadow when the other residents turn to meet him. As he steps forward we expect him to emerge into the light so they can see how inoffensively human he is, but instead he goes further into the darkness, in stark contrast to the well lit hallway behind him. The entire movie is filled with clever set ups like that. It makes me glad that there doesn’t appear to be a colorised version of this movie, since it is so brilliantly using the stark contrasts only available in black & white.

It’s astonishing to me how well this movie has aged. Yes, I grinned a little at the spooky space-age theramin music. Yes the movie clubs the viewer violently with its message. But it’s an important message, I think, and a hopeful one. if only there were benevolent and all powerful aliens that could intervene and force people to be better to each other. If only rational thought could replace petty differences. If only there were more spectacularly well-made movies like this one.

May 4, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | 2 Comments