Sunday Sci-Fi Cinema Classic: The Day the Earth Stood Still

As I continue my tour of alien visitation, I’m switching gears for the second part of my double feature, and looking at aliens who aren’t looking to invade the Earth, but instead hope to save the Earth. 1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still is one of the early classics of the genre, a film that stood out from the B-movie classics we all love from that era, and had a larger message.

The Day the Earth Stood Still features many elements that would become cliché in the genre, but that doesn’t take away from the film at all; perhaps its early date makes the cliché more acceptable. The movie starts with a flying saucer descending on Washington D.C.; the alien, Klaatu, emerges from the interplanetary ship, declares that he comes in peace, produces a goodwill offering, and is promptly shot when the offering is mistaken for a weapon. Gort, Klaatu’s eight foot tall robot bodyguard, quickly disintegrates the guns, cannons, and tanks brought to greet the saucer – but does no harm to the soldiers.

Man’s aggression toward the alien actually fits the theme of the film: Klaatu is an ambassador to Earth to warn us that our aggressive nature is our own undoing – but our own affair – so long as it is limited to Earth, but as we gain the ability to travel to other planets, such aggression will not be tolerated in the interplanetary community. Since Klaatu lands in Washington, D.C., he is first taken to a naval hospital after he is shot, and visited by a secretary to the President; Klaatu requests to meet with “all world leaders” at once, which is resisted not only be the secretary (who prefers that Klaatu share his message with the American head of state), but also by the other world leaders, who can’t even agree on where a meeting would take place. (When Klaatu describes our international bickering as “childish,” it is hard to argue with his point.)

Realizing that talking to world leaders will not be the answer, he decides to try to the scientific/intellectual community, in hope that they will return to their leaders to urge them to change course. Klaatu “leaves his calling card” with Professor Barnhardt, a Nobel laureate and the smartest man in the world (at least, when Klaatu isn’t around): Klaatu easily leaves solutions on the professor’s chalkboard while he is out to a problem the professor has been working on “for weeks,” according to his housekeeper. Klaatu’s solution indeed gets the professor’s attention, and Klaatu (as “Mr. Carpenter,” his Earth alias) is taken to Professor Barnhardt later that night. Klaatu is able to convince the professor of the gravity of his mission, and his desire to help Earth; Professor Barnhardt agrees to summon the top intellectuals from around the world to meet with Klaatu.

Naturally, human nature gets in the way. Klaatu has befriended Bobby, son of Helen Benson, who live at the boarding house where Klaatu is staying; Helen’s boyfriend, Tom, initially motivated by jealousy, is distrustful of “Mr. Carpenter,” and feels his suspicions confirmed when Bobby tells his tales of trailing “Mr. Carpenter” on an evening excursion to the saucer. Tom further investigates the following day, as Klaatu explains his mission to Helen; Helen grasps the import of Klaatu’s mission, but Tom only can imagine the rewards and fame that would come to him by turning over Klaatu to the authorities.

“Shoot first” continues to be the official response, and Klaatu is gunned down in the street attempting to reach Professor Barnhardt; of course, you can’t assume that “death” is the same to an alien as to a human, and Gort rescues Klaatu from government custody so Klaatu can finally deliver his message before he leaves the planet. Klaatu artfully combines aspiration with ultimatum: in the person of Professor Barnhardt, Klaatu has seen reason in humanity, but he has had ample examples of man’s aggressive nature; if we choose not to deal with our own nature, we will be dealt with.

The original film is delightfully dated: my favorite moment would have to been when it’s reported that scientists believe the visitor is most likely from Mars or Venus, as those are the planets most capable of supporting life; I also love that the intrepid newscaster appears on screen wearing his fedora, the timeless badge of the determined male. For most of the actors involved, The Day the Earth Stood Still was the career highlight; Patricia Neal did later win an Oscar for Best Actress for her role in Paul Newman’s Hud, and director Robert Wise would later win Best Director/Best Picture Academy Awards for West Side Story and The Sound of Music, and made another significant contribution to the sci-fi genre as director of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The film also features an excellent score by Hollywood legend Bernard Hermann.

While the original film is rightly regarded as one of the early sci-fi masterpieces, the 2008 remake probably is unjustly regarded as a disaster. It did bring in some bigger stars (Keanu Reeves as Klaatu, and Jennifer Connelly as Helen Benson, even John Cleese as Professor Barnhardt), and it did some revisions that will probably look as dated in 50 years as the original does today. But while I’m not a huge fan of remaking the same story time and again, I felt it worked in this case; and though the original is critically regarded as a classic, I doubt that it is sought out by any but the hardest core younger sci-fi fans. And the message is one that, sadly, needed to be updated and is worth trying to reach audiences today.

While there is still plenty of aggression in the world, director Scott Derrickson shifted the destructive theme to the environment, and does so in a poignant way: Klaatu’s message this time is that if man continues unchecked, he will destroy himself and all life on Earth; but if man is removed from the equation, the Earth may be saved. Gort’s role is also different: instead of acting as Klaatu’s bodyguard on a mission to warn the Earth, Gort is here to carry out the directive to destroy all traces of humanity once Klaatu confirms that humanity is beyond hope. While Barnhardt again starts to change Klaatu’s mind about humanity’s potential (“It is only when we are at the brink that we begin to change”), it is his evolving relationship with Helen and Jacob Benson (replacing Bobby, and played most annoyingly by Jaden Smith) that finally convinces him to call off the destruction of humankind.

Between the two, the remake has nothing on the original – but it’s a high bar trying to remake one of the most significant science fiction films made. I actually watched the remake first in preparing this review, and my first reaction to Keanu Reeves was that his manner seemed wooden and flat (which is sometimes his range), but after watching the original, I realized that this manner is appropriate for the “other” coming to observe and judge the people of a planet. Both versions are worth your time; The Day the Earth Stood Still is essential viewing, as it shows aliens coming to save the Earth, rather than conquer it.

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