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 »

  1. The great Robert Wise!

    Comment by Doc Wheat | May 5, 2011 | Reply


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