The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

Before the remake hits theaters this weekend, I decided to take another look at he original The Day the Earth Stood Still and see if I liked it any better the second time around. The first time I watched it I was kind of bored and underwhelmed by it, but times and tastes change and maybe I was just in a restless mood that day. If nothing else I wanted the original fresh in my mind to compare with the new version.

The opening ten minutes are probably some of the most exciting in the film. An eerily glowing flying saucer buzzes across the Washington DC cityscape before hovering down for a landing on a local baseball field. It throbs eerily but initially shows no sign of action. As the ship lays quietly and unassumingly on baseball field, swarms of tanks and soliders circle it, guns at the ready. Finally, the lone figure of a man emerges and proclaims, “We have come to visit you in peace and goodwill.”

Rather than be appeased by this statement, the soldiers all raise their guns higher. Of course, the being doesn’t help matters by drawing out a strange silver device that, at the flick of a button, suddenly extrudes several metal prongs. He gets shot by a gittery soldier for his unwise action. So much for peace and goodwill!

The wounded alien, called Klaatu, is not hurt badly and is patched up at a nearby hospital. However, his mission is not panning out well. He announces to a representative of the President that he has a message that he can only deliver to all the nations of Earth simulatenously. Soon, he learns that territorial foreign powers refuse to send represenatives and demand that Klaatu come to them. Now look, I know tensions were bad in the 50’s. The cold war was on, people were digging fallout shelters and students were going through bombing drills where they were encouraged to crawl under their desks and kiss their collective asses good-bye. But you’re going to tell me a man from space landing on Earth is not enough of an incentive to send somebody-- any low-level shlub would do-- to see what this visitor has to say? I wonder if things were really that bad, or if the filmmakers are just showing a bit of a pro-USA bias here?

Soon Klaatu sneaks out of the hospital and decides to hide among humanity for a bit. The theory here, I take it, is to observe first hand what humans are like and try to deduce if there’s any hope for them. To this end, he gets a room at a boarding house, and listens at the supper table to the chit-chat. He wanders around DC with a young boy visiting monuments, and has a talk with a local scientist. Besides the fact that it moves with the speed of an iceberg, here’s what’s wrong with this section: Klaatu really doesn’t experience all that much of the extremes of human behavior, and I’m not sure how he can take away much of anything from his sojourn. The most inspiring thing he finds about humanity comes from an inscription on a monument. The worst of humanity he encounters is-- well, the fact that a mother would leave her young son with a complete stranger so that she can go gallavanting with her boyfriend!

A huge manhunt is on for Klaatu, and although he gets a bit of help from the boy and his mother, he is soon tracked down by the military and shot in the back while he is running away. See? We are warlike-- we just indescriminantly gun down unarmed men in three piece suits!

Now we get to the part that was probably the most thrilling for fifties moviegoers, wherein Klaatu’s robot companion Gort flips the fuck out and makes a beeline for where Klaatu’s body is being held. Here is where we should get to see some full-on ramapaging robot action, but even here I was disappointed. Anytime the film deals with Gort, it’s in half-measures. Earlier, when Klaatu came for a visit to the ship, the robot approached from behind two soldiers guarding the saucer. But then there is a quick cut to the little boy’s face and by the time we switch back the soldiers are lying in a heap. Did Gort knock their heads together or just crumple them with a sweep of his massive arm, or what? Even as he marches out into the world to retrieve Klaatu, his wave of descruction basically consists of him shooting people and things in his way, and they quickly and cleanly disappear in a flash of light. Gort so doesn’t kick ass in this movie the way you really want him to.

Back on board the ship, Gort uses the technology therein to revive Klaatu, who finally delivers a message from the galactic community to the Earth. Basically he says, if you want to kill each other, it’s disgusting but we’ll deal. But if you start shooting up ships into space with deadly atomic capabilities, we’re gonna burn your world to a cinder and you’d better believe it brother! It’s a pretty potent message, but if he didn’t need the representatives of the world to be present after all, why didn’t he deliver it 12 minutes into the film? Unless something about what he saw in the interim somehow changed the content of the warning. If this is the case, I’m not sure Klaatu’s epiphany is spelled out enough.

By the way, the Christian parallels in this story completely went over my head until I read about them on wikipedia. They do seem pretty obvious now that I know they’re there, but it sure seems like an arrogant move on the part of the filmmakers. It’s like they’re saying, “Our point of view on this issue is so correct, even Jesus himself is on our side.”

Most people consider modern remakes a blasphemy, especially if the original is as highly regarded as this film is. But frankly, I think the original The Day the Earth Stood Still is slow-moving and occasionally dull, with questionable dialogue and stiff acting, and only has enough story for an episode of The Twilight Zone rather than a 90-minute feature film. If Klaatu is really going to reach an opinion on human culture, he should experience a wider range. He should have to be exposed to homeless people huddling in an alley. He should attend a church service. Or a VA hospital. Or a high school football game. He should be on line at a Wal-Mart on Black Friday. He should be forced to watch an episode of The Hills. And as for Gort, he should really tear shit apart. I hope the new filmmakers let him off the leash and really let the ignorant masses learn that they shouldn’t mess with what they can’t comprehend. I can totally see how The Day the Earth Stood Still was a notable work in the time it was created, but it could certainly benefit from a rethink and a more modern sensibility. Whether Keanu Reeves and the director of the Exorcism of Emily Rose are the ones to make it work remains to be seen.

Rating: 7/10

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