The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

When it’s on: Friday, 27 April 2012 (3.10 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

There are days, reader(s), when I wish someone would put me out of my misery and let me stay at home with a Film4 line-up of afternoon matinee classics. This site would have a lot less to talk about without Channel 4’s movie service and the kind of schedule that slips The Day the Earth Stood Still betwixt The Sea Chase and A Matter of Life and Death. Bliss.

This is the original version, made more than sixty years ago as a Cold War allegory and sparking a decade of science fiction flicks riffing off the paranoia of 1950s America. Forget the worthless 2008 update. Robert Wise’s tale of the benevolent alien appearing to us with a warning might look primitive, both in terms of its effects and its portrayal of American life and values, but it’s pure storytelling. And not just the over-arching plot, rather the canny way it probes gently into all its characters’ lives, whether this comes via a conversation or even a well-judged shot of someone’s reaction. Its magic lies in the lovely, warm and honest relationship between Klaatu (Yorkshire-born actor, Michael Rennie) and Bobby (Billy Gray), the way the child’s open questions and sense of wonder affects his friend from another world. Or the acceptance of Klaatu’s wisdom from Professor Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe), not to mention the very human responses of Helen (Patricia Neal) to his revelations and the stripping away of his identity.

Wise said that he wanted his film to appear believable, leading to all those reaction  shots of ordinary people, the logical curiosity and suspicion surrounding Klaatu’s flying saucer and the sentinel, Gort, in reality 7’7″ Lock Martin lumbering along in a claustrophobic robot suit. The contemporary feeling of suspicion that inspired the film was called up by composer Bernard Herrman, taking his first job since moving to Hollywood and deploying two theremins to create that famous, otherworldly atmosphere.

Watched now, there are elements of The Day the Earth Stood Still that seem quaint. The science underpinning it is incredibly limited. Klaatu is conveniently identical to human beings (this was a point the 2008 film addressed). His powers of recovery were toned down in the script so audiences wouldn’t be upset with the idea that anyone but God could be omnipotent and immortal. But these are mere quibbles and far from reason enough to avoid watching it. First time viewers are in for a real treat from science fiction’s golden age. Those who’ve seen it before – perhaps, like me, on some midweek, early evening BBC2 schedule, which used to be the optimum time to screen old monster movies – will find its worth to be absolutely intact.

And remember – Klaatu barada nikto.

The Day the Earth Stood Still: *****

3 Replies to “The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)”

  1. To my great surprise, I sort of quiet liked the remake. I much prefer Wise’s Christian/Cold war version but I loved the sheer bleakness of the ending in the Keanu version, which is a fairly annoying movie in other respects however (yet another movie that wastes Jennifer Connelly). The Blu-ray release of the original is very impressive by the way, though it largely sacrifices the feature-length documentary previously available on DVD (and Laser Disc).

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