Monday, 20 July 2009

Movie Review - The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

What happens when an alien visitor parks his flying saucer in the middle of a park and walks out with a message of peace? Why, shoot him of course! This is the basic concept of The Day The Earth Stood Still, set among a climate of fear and mistrust among earth's nations, and the visitor - Klaatu (Michael Rennie)

A true sci-fi classic, The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951) is very much a product of its generation and yet still very relevant to today's world. Klaatu is, despite being an alien, very much like a human - in fact you wouldn't know he was an alien at all if you met him - but Michael Rennie's performance is full of subtle nuances, the slightly superior attitude when confronted by what to him is earth's primitive technology, the bemused disbelief at certain attitudes he encounters, etc. Klaatu particularly forms a friendship with a young boy named Bobby (Billy Gray) and his mother Helen (Patricia Neal). In Bobby Klaatu sees what humanity could and should be - innocent and untainted by political intrigues and suspicion. Helen also shows herself capable of more empathy than most of the people around her - while most relate wild stories about a fearsome, gigantic alien who should be destroyed for the safety of earth, Helen actually dares to suggest that maybe it's the alien who's scared and uncertain of his surroundings.

After a failed attempt to get representatives of all the nations together to hear the message he's come to earth with, Klaatu turns to the scientific community. Professor Jacob Barnhardt - looking a little like Einstein put through a tumble dryer - may be the key, but Klaatu needs to resort to drastic measures first to get his attention, and then to convince the whole scientific community that he truly is who he says he is. This demonstration, perhaps predictably, causes even more panic among earth's inhabitants... Apart from those in the know (since Klaatu has to escape the authorities to properly examine the people of the planet he's visiting) Helen's fiancé, Tom Stevens (Hugh Marlowe) is perhaps the only human to be suspicious of Klaatu - but only because of jealousy. Still, this leads him to pay more attention to Klaatu (travelling under an assumed , more normal-sounding name, of course), which could cause problems for the alien later on...

Klaatu seems to be a bit of a paradox at times - he preaches peace but has enormously destructive technology at his disposal - but the reason for this is (mostly) adequately explained near the end of the movie. Robert Wise's direction moves the film at a thoughtful pace, too slow for some maybe but it creates enough questions in your mind to keep you occupied without lots of action. What I really hadn't remembered about The Day the Earth Stood Still is that it's very funny - there are some priceless little gems in the dialogue which you could easily miss if you weren't paying attention. There's a robot called Gort, who never says anything, but somehow the way he just stands there motionless almost all of the time is strangely menacing - and of course when he gets angry, nothing can stop him...

The special effects look pretty impressive for the time (1951), but they're not especially important to how enjoyable the film is. I guess it all comes down to human nature - essentially that remains the same throughout the ages, so despite the post-WWII paranoia that's depicted in the film, the reactions of the people in the movie - from politicians to people on the street - are believable. It's widely recognised as a sci-fi classic and at the time of writing this resides at #234 in IMDB's all-time Top 250 movies list (and #27 in the all-time Sci-Fi Top 50), proving that its appeal has stood the test of time.

Okay so it's a little slow, the plot elements don't always make perfect sense, and the ending is a little inconclusive; everything considered though, The Day the Earth Stood Still remains a truly great movie. If you don't like slightly cheesy fifties sci-fi you may not enjoy it, but otherwise you should definitely watch it.

Related Reviews:

The Day the Earth Stood Still (inferior 2008 remake)

Silent Running (1972 sci-fi classic starring Bruce Dern)

My Top Ten Science Fiction Movies

CaptainD - Movie Reviews Blog


harriselizabeth said...

am a big fan of sci-fi classic films.thank you for providing us good reviews.

new movies dvd releases said...

Like many Cold War sci-fi movies, The Day the Earth Stood Still succeeds as anti-nuclear allegory even as the music, costumes, and dialogue ratchet up the cheese factor (“Deploy all Zone 5 units according to Plan B! Immediately!”). Audiences in the 1950s didn’t care if it was cheesy. The irony and cynicism of the ’70s and ’80s killed movies like this. It’s a shame.