Saturday, May 08, 2010

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

I have seen worse movies than this, but I don’t think I have ever been more disappointed by one. This is one of the beloved films of the science-fiction pantheon. Arthur C. Clarke himself supposedly listed it as one of the ten best sci-fi movies of all time. I was full of anticipation for this one, but watching it, I wondered how a poorly-acted, almost action-less, stilted B-movie production became so widely praised.

The film begins with a UFO, which announces its presence to the earth by circling the globe, then landing in a Washington, DC park. Surrounded by soldiers and police, the saucer sits there for a while, and then a guy in a spacesuit emerges. And I mean a GUY in a spacesuit. No pointy ears, no third eye, nothing alien about the guy at all. He calls himself Klaatu, but he looks like an insurance salesman, which, in a way, is what he turns out to be. Klaatu comes to us in peace, with a message of warning to stop our warlike ways. He wants to give this message to all the leaders of earth, but he soon is told that earth’s leaders are too belligerent to agree to meet in one place. Klaatu decides that earth’s scientists might represent a better audience, so he embarks on a mission to get THEM together to hear his message. He needs a place to stay while doing all this, so he rents a room from a sweet old lady and bonds with his new single-mom neighbor.

There are all sorts of ways that this story could have been made funny, subversive, scary, or just interesting, but it is really none of those things. The anti-nuke, anti-war message is very straightforward, in an After-School-Special kind of way. The dialog and characters are just plain hokey, without a trace of wit, and the only suspense I felt during the film was, “When will it end?”

That image of a visored spaceman that you see on the movie posters and DVD packaging? That’s not Klaatu; it’s his invulnerable robot, which is powerful enough to destroy the entire earth. Imagine all the cool sci-fi action fun the film could have with such a being! Now keep on imagining it, because it doesn’t happen. The robot does very little, and hardly gets any screen time. I don’t mind that the special effects are cheesy, but they should have DONE SOMETHING with them. Let’s see that robot rampage through the city and do battle with the military! “The Day the Earth Stood Still” gives us none of that.

The most bizarre aspect of “The Day the Earth Stood Still” is that the Earth doesn’t actually stand still! A space alien lands on earth, and yet the citizens of the city where he lands just read about it in the paper, then go on to their regular jobs and schools. The president sends a secretary over to chat with Klaatu rather than going himself! If this was supposed to be some clever plot device, like the grandfather who considers vampires just a local annoyance in “Lost Boys,” then it is played so straight that it goes right over my head.

I believe that “The Day the Earth Stood Still” was successful in 1951 because it tapped into a political and philosophical backlash against McCarthyism and the Cold War. The dominant mood of the country then may have been hawkish anti-Communism, but there were a significant number of peace-niks and, frankly, Communists, especially among academics and in Hollywood. (Actor Sam Jaffe, who played Professor Barnhardt (an obvious stand-in for Albert Einstein) was an admitted communist and was blacklisted.) “The Day the Earth Stood Still” was a movie for them and for anyone who felt sympathy for those ideas. The movie goes beyond a general call for peace and international cooperation, however. The film plays on the idea that individuals and even nations cannot be relied upon to behave, and must be overseen by some benign, all-powerful, secular entity. Producer Julian Blaustein admitted that he intended the film to be an argument for a strong United Nations. Even the U.N., of course, is an institution of men, and therefore fallible. What Klaatu offers is an army of invincible robots that are immune to corruption or politics and that will swoop in to punish any act of hostility or war, ensuring peace throughout the universe. What a classic Liberal fantasy! In counterpoint, the movie version of “The War of the Worlds” came out in 1953, two years after “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” although, of course, the famous radio broadcast preceded both films. H.G. Wells wrote “War of the Worlds” well before the Soviet Union existed, but audiences in 1953 doubtless viewed the bloodsucking invaders as symbols of the Russians. In “War of the Worlds” the aliens are defeated by an earth virus, an act of Divine intervention evocative of the Conservative fantasy that God would save us from the Communists.

This dichotomy was to become the standard blueprint for Science Fiction. Aliens were either evil invaders who had to be fought off (“Independence Day” “Aliens” “V”) or the bringers of enlightenment to benighted Earthlings, often threatened, as Klaatu was, by the violent paranoia of humans (“E.T.” “Star Trek: First Contact” Arthur C. Clarke’s “Childhood’s End”). The type of sci-fi that appeals to you may be determined, in part, by whether you have an essentially Liberal or Conservative world view.

Of course, the biggest determinant of which sci-fi stories you will enjoy is, and should be, the quality of the storytelling. That’s where “The Day the Earth Stood Still” falls short. The movie feels like a cheap comic book. Plenty of people will disagree with me on this, but even for 1951, this movie is not a classic.

1 star

No comments: