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The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

by on 2011/10/31

“We do not pretend to have achieved perfection, but we do have a system, and it works.”

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There is a tendency I have observed in my “white collar” working life: when business is good, and the stakes are low, internal playground politics can tear a staff apart. Commitment, friendship, intelligence, rewards . . . none of these seems to matter. We are rarely quite so dangerous as when we don’t have a goal or an enemy, some external challenge which serves to unify.

Based on a story by Harry Bates (“Farewell to the Master”), The Day the Earth Stood Still understands my life lesson instinctually. Left to its own devices, the human — and possibly any — species will tend towards destruction. This problem is less a grand concern if we simply destroy ourselves than it is if we take others along with us.

Alien visitor Klaatu (Michael Rennie) hopes to avoid just such a scenario. Landing his flying saucer in the midst of Washington D.C., he begins his mission of deterrence fairly diplomatically. He is promptly shot for his efforts, his ceremonial gift destroyed. That’s when the towering robot, Gort (Lock Martin) appears to fight fire with fire.

Klaatu persists on his course of reason, temporarily restraining Gort. He mingles with average citizens, hoping to learn more about our ways. His bittersweet course is tinged with as much monstrosity as hope. He hopes to meet with an international gathering of scientists but, to prove himself, he must demonstrate his power, so the world will stop and take notice.

His tale is told in various ways: scientific reports, military plots, broadcast coverage, all tied together by the thread of his personal journey. Through a diverse mix of scenes, various ideas and themes are explored: technology’s advancements, our place within a larger environment, cold war paranoia, even biblical metaphor.

And though it’s probably an interesting exercise to compare the emissary to Christ, he’s not the virtuous paragon he resolutely seeks to be. His extra-terrestrial origins have nothing to do with it. He is essentially human, and he exhibits many of our foibles: impatience, frustration, and passive aggressiveness.

He demands cooperation, competence, and ultimately compliance, yet his politics are suspect, however enlightened he professes to be. Ostensibly anti-militaristic, he arrives in an indestructible craft, flanked by a robotic weapon, intent on our obeisance to avoid Earth being “reduced to a burned-out cinder.”

I believe there’s a term for this approach. It’s called gunboat diplomacy.

Still, it’s hard to bear a grudge against the visitor. After all, while he struggles with the same issues we do, at least he’s tipping the scales in favour of advancement. If we could only do the same, then we might share in his people’s progress: in health, communications, travel, and cyclopean laser-bots.

We don’t make mutual understanding easy, unfortunately. One especially poignant scene has Klaatu explaining physics to a boy, surrounded by the derision of spectating adults. When asked for his opinion by a vox populi reporter, his honest thoughtful response is cut off and dismissed.

The content and commentary are wrapped in an exceptional framework. Directed with visual flair by Robert Wise (Cat People and The Haunting), with some art designs by Frank Lloyd Wright, and score by Bernard Herrmann (Citizen Kane and Taxi Driver), this production delivers a great-looking, great-sounding classic.

Sets and props are simple, symmetrical, and elegant. The lighting and cinematography are dramatically effective, especially in a boarding house, an elevator, and in Klaatu’s craft. The soundtrack blurs the distinction between music and effects with its revolutionary instruments, a pair of theremins. Their distinctive sound conjures other realms, a space age future . . . and fear.

It isn’t always the case a collection of strong parts succeeds as a stronger whole. Fortunately, everything here gels extraordinarily well, elevating The Day the Earth Stood Still far above its B-list contemporaries. It’s a family friendly, re-watchable, highly entertaining classic, and thought-provoking on several different levels.

Besides, it’s got aliens, robots, paranoia, action, subtext, great lighting, and a proto-electronic score . . . all of which explains why it’s also got a rating of five stars.

* * * * *

Rated G

92 minutes

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