The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)

Dir: Robert Wise. Starring: Michael Rennie, Hugh Marlowe, Billy Gray, Patricia Neal, Sam Jaffe. Science-Fiction.
The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)

Director Robert Wise’s 1951 Science-Fiction opus The Day The Earth Stood Still has always been the granddaddy of the friendly alien invasion genre. While the more popular “mean alien” genre dominated Sci-Fi in the decade (The War of the Worlds, The Thing From Another World, Invasion of the Body Snatchers), the peaceful alien is usually less exciting and harder to pull off. It wasn’t really for another 20-something years that it was done as well again (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Starman, E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial and even the ’78 version of Superman). Like the best of Sci-Fi, The Day The Earth Stood Still reflects the paranoia of the period (the Cold War, the atomic bomb). What makes it so much more than the usual hokum of the '50s is the high caliber talent behind it. It has a groundbreaking and influential score by the brilliant Bernard Herrmann. Director Wise (after editing Citizen Kane) helped invent the Noir Horror genre with The Curse of the Cat People (1944) and The Body Snatcher (1945). Afterward he did straight Noirs with films like The Set-Up (1949) and The House on Telegraph Hill (1951). Though The Day The Earth Stood Still has a black and white gloss to it, it also has shadows, lies, and typical Noir pessimism, making it maybe the first Noir Sci-Fi flick.

When a big flying saucer lands in Washington, DC, the handsome alien pilot Klaatu (Michael Rennie) emerges from it in peace but is shot by a jumpy soldier. In response, his big robot buddy Gort emerges and destroys all the weapons present with his head laser. After a debriefing by the military, Klaatu tells a White House official he has an important message for the leaders of the world. Instead he is pooh-poohed and locked up. He escapes and goes undercover as “Mr. Carpenter,” a dim-witted Earth nerd, taking a room in a boarding house to learn more about these strange Earth people. He hangs out with a science loving kid there named Bobby (Billy Gray) who gives him a walking tour of DC and a quickie lesson in Americanism. Bobby’s mom, Helen (the great Patricia Neal), works for Professor Jacob Barnhardt (played by Sam Jaffe), a math wiz, whom Klaatu eventually befriends and to whom he explains his intentions: Earth’s love of war and newly acquired atomic weapons have endangered the universe, and unless the powers that be dump their nukes, he will be forced to destroy the planet.

Though Helen’s hothead boyfriend, Tom (Hugh Marlowe fresh off of playing Lloyd Richards in All About Eve), is a little threatened by this Mr. Carpenter and Helen even finds him a little strange, Bobby is fascinated by him until he follows him out one night and realizes his true identity. After Bobby convinces the grown-ups that the stiff rooming upstairs is actually the fugitive spaceman, Tom acts like a jerk and rats him out to the military while Helen falls for him. She and Klaatu go on the run together where he tells her the now-famous line, "Klaatu barada nikto" (if anything happens to him, whisper that to Gort so he won’t go robocrazy and kill everyone). So, of course, by the end the people and leaders of Earth are left with a tough decision: more war or total destruction. At this point Wise and the other Noir auteurs didn’t have much hope for mankind (see Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly for more proof).

For Patricia Neal, with a unique beauty and an almost blue-collar presence, The Day The Earth Stood Still is just part of a string of fantastic performances in relevant films, including The Fountainhead, A Face in the Crowd, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and her Oscar-winning work in Hud. She isn’t always mentioned by film historians, but The Day The Earth Stood Still reconfirms that she is one of the most interesting actresses of her generation.

Though it was remade, forgettably in 2008 with Keanu Reeves and Jennifer Connelly, the closest comparison to the original The Day The Earth Stood Still would be the wonderful animated film The Iron Giant, both taking place in the '50s. With a lot of heart, The Iron Giant almost spoofed the former film’s paranoia. Science-Fiction is a genre that doesn’t always age well - the technology and terminology can look silly fast - and most films from the ‘50s that have aliens in human form are now pretty laughable. For a film from ’51 The Day The Earth Stood Still stands up well. It wasn’t a B-Pic, it was surrounded by pros, and its preachiness doesn’t clobber you too hard. As a matter of fact much of the message can still be meaningful today, while another classic from the same year, like A Streetcar Named Desire, can look a little stagey and feel a little dated (excluding Brando’s stunning performance). The Day The Earth Stood Still deserves extra points on the classics-scale for just surviving after the decades and still packing such a wallop.

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Jun 25, 2013 3:43pm
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