RogerBW's Blog

The Day The Earth Stood Still 29 August 2021

1951 science fiction, dir. Robert Wise, Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal: IMDb / allmovie. The aliens land with a message for humanity, and the humans immediately shoot one of them.

It's a very odd film, coming as it does just after the deadly-serious Destination Moon (and the blatant ripoff Rocketship X-M), both from 1950. There hadn't actually been a whole lot of SF film with aliens in it at this point, and most of it was Flash Gordon; but the pulps had definitely internalised the idea of how alien invasion worked. They land in huge numbers, they fight, they probably want our women, they win at first but we heroically push them back. But this is an alien invasion with just two people in it, and the one who talks is all reasonable

That said for a talky film it does bowl along. It's only 92 minutes long and even then it whizzes over the introductions to get onto the meat of the matter: Klaatu wants to talk to all the governments of the world, the governments won't cooperate, and he breaks out of the hospital to go and learn more about humans, all in the first act.

Though really what makes this film work for me as more than a bit of preachiness is Helen Benson, the war widow with a young son who ends up befriending and working with Klaatu. She has a beau, with whom she might be drifting towards marriage; but he is unambigously shown as a villain; but his villainy consists of going along with what the government is telling him he should do and alerting the authorites to Klaatu's location. In its way and for its day, this film can get quite subversive.

Edmund H. North, the screenwriter, "originally hoped that the Christ comparison would be subliminal", with this character who takes the name John Carpenter, who lives among humans, who has wisdom beyond humanity's and a message of peace, whose actions are misunderstood, who performs miracles, who is killed by the government, who is brought back to life and, shortly afterwards, returns to his own place beyond the sky. So well yeah. The MPAA censor insisted on the bizarrely out-of-place line suggesting that the aliens too have their limits, and their God.

I like this film. It could easily drag; it could concentrate more on the tedious child; but it gets things right and doesn't need to dwell on them, trusting the audience not to need every possible implication drawn out. I especially admire the opening sequence, firmly grounded in reality with contemporaneous newscasters, real locations, real police cars and military hardware; and the effects which never overreach themselves, such as the ship landing (with a circular shadow moving across the ground towards it), and the disintegration of military hardware which by underplaying the visuals becomes much more effective and menacing. (Gort is less effective once you notice that there's a quick cut away any time it's supposedly doing something physical, because Lock Martin didn't have much range of motion in the very hot costume.)

All right, the overall message is "there is someone more powerful than you who will hurt you if you don't do what you're told", but perhaps that was the only reason 1950s people could come up with for not killing each other.

As usual if you want more of my witterings you should listen to Ribbon of Memes.

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