Wednesday 21 April 2010

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

Director: Robert Wise
Stars: Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal and Hugh Marlowe
I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

There are precious few science fiction films in the IMDb Top 250 because very few attempt to go beyond the standard scifi schlock and tell a serious story, filmmakers apparently happy to merely churn out monster movies. It's almost the opposite in literature: most writers attempt serious speculative fiction, the question merely being how successful they are. The Day the Earth Stood Still tells a highly intelligent story of film but it doesn't sacrifice any of its approachability for that intelligence. Just because something is bright and thought invoking doesn't mean it can't also be entertaining, as is patently evident to anyone who grew up reading golden age science fiction. It isn't surprising to find that this was loosely based on a short story from the best known science fiction magazine of them all, Astounding. However it was a relatively obscure story, Farewell to the Master, by a relatively obscure writer, Harry Bates, best known as the original editor of that magazine.

I've seen this film many times over the years and the more time goes by the more it seems like a throwback to that classic era as well as an antidote to the Hollywood product of today. As if to underline its inability to understand such a concept, Hollywood remade this film in 2008 with Keanu Reeves, which is all the more hilarious for the fact that they didn't realise it was a joke. What makes it worse is that the message of the original film is just as important and relevant in today's world, but the writers of the remake chose to skew away from it in favour of a generic green message. This decision places it alongside the remake of The Wicker Man in the annals of stupidity by taking a story that exists for a single reason, removing the reason and retelling the story anyway. Next, they'll remake Casablanca without a war, 12 Angry Men without a trial and High Noon without a clock. To echo Klaatu's words in this film, 'I'm impatient with stupidity.'

Klaatu is an alien who travels 250 million miles to our planet, with an all powerful robot called Gort in tow, to ask us nicely to grow up as a species. We've reached a point in our development where many things become possible and thus effectively we've shown up on some sort of intergalactic radar. The aliens send Klaatu with a serious message, but as he ends up landing in a ball park in Washington, DC, you can imagine how well his message is received. Tim Burton's Mars Attacks! happily spoofed the tension surrounding the opening of the spaceship. The spaceman announces that he comes in peace but when he activates some sort of device a dumb trigger happy American soldier shoots it away and injures him. No wonder the US army refused to cooperate with the production after reading the script, even though it was adapted by a former army officer, Maj Edmund H North, who was concerned about nuclear proliferation.

This was the Cold War after all. When the film was released, it had only been six years since the US had dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and four years after the first use of the term 'cold war'. This was at its peak from 1948-1953 with the Korean War, the formation of NATO, the rise of communism in China, and Russian success with atomic tests and failure in blockading parts of West Berlin. In such an environment you can imagine the passion behind the story's plea for peace and the reaction of audiences to the early scenes in the film. It opens with global news coverage reporting on the arrival of a flying saucer, footage that quickly brings to mind Orson Welles's legendary radio version of The War of the Worlds and, of course, the real life panic that it unwittingly raised, especially as this angle added to the effect by using real newscasters too, ones that audiences of the time would easily recognise.

After Klaatu is shot, out comes Gort like some sort of metallic visored golem and wipes out every weapon present, from guns to tanks, without touching a single human being. That he simply continues to stand there immobile, apparently utterly unconcerned by anything or anyone around him, is one of the most powerful messages in this film to me. It suggests in no uncertain terms that far from being able to take on any theoretical aliens that might one day arrive, they might look on us as we look on specks of dirt. While Gort does precisely nothing, Klaatu has the good sense to refuse to talk to just one country, whether it happens to be the most influential on the globe or not. He's not interested in the 'petty squabbles' of the nations of the Earth or to become a part of their 'childish jealousies and suspicions.' He wants to talk to the leaders or at least some sort of representation from every nation of the Earth.

When it becomes obvious that politicians aren't going to provide him with the platform he seeks, he promptly leaves the hospital he's been kept in, having healed his wounds with an alien salve, without alerting anyone. He wants to take a walk around and see the everyday people in the city in an attempt to try to understand the background to their 'strange unreasoning attitudes.' Under the messianic pseudonym of Carpenter, he takes a room at a nearby boarding house and listens to what people have to say, often about him. There are many religious overtones here, though you have to look for them, some appearing only when you actively compare Klaatu to Jesus Christ. In fact there would have been more but the Hays Office, apparently fine with the anti-military stance, found the religious angle too left wing and forced changes upon North and director Robert Wise, including a ridiculous line at the end of the film that they both hated.
I particularly appreciate the scenes after Klaatu 'escapes' from hospital, only the smile on his face showing quite how simple such a task is. These scenes are mostly silent, with only Bernard Herrmann's striking score for instruments including two theremins to accompany them and yet they're very telling indeed. The silence ends with Klaatu walking the streets listening to voices on the radio talking about him. He appears to people out of the dark while they're listening to more fear, uncertainty and doubt. This scene demonstrates in no uncertain terms why Michael Rennie, an experienced English actor who was unknown to American audiences, was perfectly cast as Klaatu, though far better known names like Spencer Tracy and Claude Rains had been sought first. Rennie is an inherently sincere actor, someone that you instinctively trust, like Gregory Peck but with a much lighter heart, perfect for Klaatu's blunt yet polite honesty.

Effectively this scene repeats Klaatu's first appearance, and even though we've seen his face and heard his voice in the hospital we get to discover him once more through the eyes of the boarding house tenants. The same logic applies: the actor is initially hidden to show his alien origins, his face hidden this time in shadow rather than behind a helmet, but is then revealed to look entirely normal. This is a worthy contrast between the fear apparent everywhere and the benign subject of that fear. After all, these characters are scared and jumpy but they don't really know what about. Something is out there, something apparently really bad, but nobody really knows what it is. Right now it's as faceless as Klaatu is initially, but it may prove as entirely benign as Klaatu's real face once it's uncovered. This isn't propaganda for Communism but it's a solid question asking whether nuclear proliferation is better than just talking to the other side.

Fear is one of the key reasons to watch this film today, because it's a wonderful slice of attitudes during the early Cold War. In fact this was the reason the film was made though the apparent contradictions are more fascinating today. These Americans are both trusting and trustworthy, but they're being told in no uncertain terms that they should be afraid. So they become afraid but they fail to become suspicious because they don't really know what being afraid really means. This leads to the folks at the boarding house jumping at every shadow, including the one that Klaatu enters under. Nobody knows who this Carpenter fellow is but he needs a room and he speaks English so he must be fine. In fact when Tom Stevens arrives to take Helen Benson out on a date, she's happy to leave her child in Carpenter's custody. Palpable fear and instant trust are strange bedfellows, but they highlight how the road to today's America began.

There are many messages here, the chief one about peace being quite a thought provoker in changing ways. Eventually Klaatu reveals how his planet and others like it keep the peace, through voluntarily acknowledging a higher authority, an inhuman and apparently incorruptible higher authority of all powerful robots like Gort who destroy hostility as it arises. This seems naive in so many ways but it was a welcome message in 1951. Ending the paranoia of that era may well have seemed more important than an inherent loss of free will. Today it would be easy to compare the 'new world' of the US, whose constitution prevents any such acknowledgement of a higher authority, with the 'old world' of Europe, whose countries did voluntarily acknowledge a higher power at a European level, European law trumping national law. Such things are open to interpretation, but the US prides itself on being a little freer but Europe on being much safer.

There's a message about scientists being more trustworthy than politicians, or at least more able to cut through the red tape and unite as human beings. Unable to get through to officialdom, Klaatu seeks out Prof Jacob Barnhardt, a local shock haired Einstein substitute played by Sam Jaffe, who sets up a meeting of world scientists so that Klaatu can address them. The underlying suggestion is that they will be listened to by those in power. That proved to be even more naive a message as the core one of peace. Not only are scientists not listened to nowadays, science is often seen with automatic distrust. The paranoia that this film hints at in the US also helped spark the Communist witchhunts. Einstein himself, though a pacifist, was put under surveillance. Even Sam Jaffe, an Oscar winner the year before for The Asphalt Jungle, was blacklisted, though Darryl Zanuck, who ran 20th Century Fox, personally approved him for this role.
Robots in The Day the Earth Stood Still are trustworthy, servants of mankind even when put in a position of power over them. There's a trustworthiness and power to Gort, like the biggest but friendliest guard dog imaginable. That goes rather against the grain for the era, most scifi movies happy to portray robots as inhuman monsters, ever itching to break free from our control to destroy the world, in schlocky forerunners to The Terminator. Today, in our digital world, we can't help but wonder about hackers. Robots here are the solution to the aphorism that 'power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely'. Without free will, robots aren't corruptible. However as we know, that doesn't make them immune to reprogramming. Even without a belief in machines becoming self aware at a certain point of complexity, could you imagine handing over ultimate power in today's world to the robots? The Japanese could, but that's about it.

One of my favourite moments in the film has to do with a single brief connection between the media and the alien hero. While incognito in Washington, Klaatu discovers all sorts of wild suggestions as to why he's here on Earth, everyone eager to hear more of them. Yet when he visits his own spaceship as a tourist, a radio journalist ironically asks him his opinion, and when he begins to talk, sensibly and seriously, the interviewer moves quickly away. It simply isn't what he wants to hear, or by extension what the listening audience want to hear. Does this scene speak to the dumbing down of the media, the expectations of the public or the lack of science education? Perhaps all three. It's an iconic moment for me, perhaps even more so than Gort stumbling down the ramp of the spaceship with his flexible metal joints or the point at which all non-essential electricity in the world stops working, however generated.

There are many holes in the plot. Gort can wander through Washington at night to rescue the body of Klaatu without being noticed, but this isn't an action picture. When Klaatu triggers his stunt of stopping electricity, somehow the military know the scope of the outage even though the outage would inherently have prevented such knowledge. 250 million miles is nothing astronomically, putting Klaatu's home world somewhere in the asteroid belt, but in 1951 it was just a really big number. The military don't recognise Klaatu without any disguise even though they had him in effective custody in a military hospital for a couple of days and there's a major manhunt in place to find him. We can certainly forgive the use of dummies whenever Gort has to carry someone because Lock Martin, then the doorman at Grauman's Chinese theatre, may have been 7'7" tall but he was weak and couldn't lift real bodies without substantial help.

Regardless of such plotholes, The Day the Earth Stood Still follows the standard science fiction approach of speculating how the world would change given one single unusual event and it does so in a thoughtful manner that has been picked up on by the generations since. Part of this is tied to the messages, which however naive, are still serious and heartfelt. Part of it resonates through the superb performance of Michael Rennie, who is simply perfect for the role. However much of it comes through key iconic components that triggered a response in the creative community. The levelling of New York City suggests Watchmen. The destruction of a planet suggests Star Wars. The train that doesn't need tracks suggests Back to the Future. Less specifically, Gort and the seamless spaceship have been copied endlessly and Danny Elfman cites Bernard Herrmann's unique score as a primary reason that he became a composer.

Above all, there's a line of dialogue that has been described in Cinefantastique magazine by Frederick S Clarke as 'the most famous phrase ever spoken by an extraterrestrial.' Quite why 'Klaatu barada nikto' touched a nerve is open to discussion, especially as what it means is never precisely explained. Maybe that's the point, it feels like some sort of esoteric secret or slice of wisdom, and if only we knew what it meant perhaps all our troubles would vanish. I guess we'll never know, but for now we have this film to make them vanish for at least a short while. I don't mean that just as a cheesy suggestion that we could happily ignore them for the ninety minute running time of the movie, but because, of all the science fiction films that Hollywood ever turned out, this is possibly the most thought provoking on a direct level, not the abstract levels of something like 2001: A Space Odyssey. It stays in the mind for a lot longer than that hour and a half. For many it's stayed since 1951.

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