The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

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*. It’s always a little sad revisiting old favourites and finding them not all that you remembered them to be.
*. On the DVD commentary track Nicolas Meyer mentions how his eight-year-old daughter had been riveted by the “simple story, simply told.” I think this is a common response to this film: that we liked it when we were kids. I might have been a bit older when I first saw it, but I think I felt the same. Today, not so much.

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*. It’s a classic, with certain images (the minimalist robot Gort and iconic flying saucer) and lines (“Klaatu barada nicto!”) that are now part of pop culture. It regularly appears on lists of the greatest SF films of all time. And yet I think people mainly watch it today for its folksy charm. I find it quite dull, like a half-hour Twilight Zone episode stretched out unnecessarily. It has an unusual but effective score, some good performances, particularly those of Rennie and Neal, but it just isn’t very interesting.
*. It’s striking how unfazed everyone seems to be by what’s going on. The powers-that-be display little sense of wonder, urgency, or anxiety at being visited by a brother from another planet. The president may have some concerns, but he’s obviously a busy man so he has his secretary look into things. As for other world leaders, they’re more worried about matters of diplomatic protocol.

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*. The intention seems to have been to make a down-to-earth, matter-of-fact, almost documentary style SF movie that would in turn make the fantastic elements more believable. Fair enough. But you never feel like the movie is getting into gear. Even Herrmann’s score is atmospheric rather than dramatic, because it’s not a dramatic movie.
*. Wise makes a very good point when being interviewed in the Making the Earth Stand Still documentary that pace is not the same thing as speed. As he puts it, “pace is interest.” A suspenseful or compelling movie can be very slow moving. But the story here isn’t interesting enough to take at a slow pace, and it’s hard not to notice all the shots that are held too long, and scenes that don’t advance the story at all.
*. From Bosley Crowther’s review in the New York Times: “in a fable of such absurd assumptions as this one amusingly presents, cold chills might be more appropriate than lukewarm philosophy. One expects more — or less — than a preachment on political morality from a man from Mars.”

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*. Michael Rennie. As soon as you hear the name you start singing “Science Fiction Double Feature” in your head. Because what else did he do? A lot, but nothing you’d be likely to remember. On the commentary track Robert Wise tells the story of Zanuck writing a letter to him saying that he’d seen Rennie on stage in London and didn’t think he’d been in any films. In fact he had been in a bunch of movies in England, and this was his third for Fox.
*. They originally wanted Claude Rains to play Klaatu, but Rennie nailed the part. With his narrow frame, deep-set eyes, and lacquered hair, he has more than a touch of the alien about him. Alas, to quote Crowther again: “this genteel soul, while charmingly suave and cosmopolitan, is likely to cause unguarded yawns. His manners are strangely punctilious for a fellow just off a space boat, and his command of an earthly language must have been acquired from listening entirely to the BBC. Nice chap, Mr. Rennnie, but a bit on the soft side, don’tcha know.”
*. The appearance of Sam Jaffe’s Professor Barnhardt was apparently based on Einstein. So why does he have a picture of Freud in his study?

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*. I like how the montage of stopping the power all over the world takes us from the grand (Times Square, the British Houses of Parliament, the Arc de Triomphe) to the mundane (the woman whose washing machine has stopped, the blender that won’t mix the milk shake, and even the milking machines that don’t work in the dairy).
*. Could the wires holding up Patricia Neal when Gort carries her in his arms be any more visible? It looks like they didn’t even make an attempt to conceal them.
*. If everyone believes Klaatu is dead, why do they lock him up in a cell? Again, it’s surprising that no one seems that interested in a dead alien.
*. Barnhardt asks Klaatu what will happen if his group rejects Klaatu’s proposals. What are the alternatives? Klaatu responds that there are no alternatives and that “the planet Earth would have to be eliminated.” So what’s the point of even calling a meeting? What is there to be decided? Klaatu just has to tell the world to shape up or face obliteration.

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*. Robert Wise and especially Nicolas Meyer are far too rough on Hugh Marlowe (playing insurance man-on-the-make Tom Stevens). I think Marlowe is fine in a limited role as an egregious, two-dimensional heel. Meyer thinks he could have been made more sympathetic, but I’m not sure the film had room for such a character, or would have known what to do with him.
*. How awful is that reference to the Almighty Spirit at the end? It was requested by the MPAA, but if the Almighty Spirit is in charge of things anyway, we don’t really need the race of robot enforcers keeping the peace, do we? I think it’s best to ignore the line and accept that God has arrived in a machine.

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2 thoughts on “The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

  1. Norm

    I remember seeing this for the first time and being appalled when Gort melts the wall of Klaatus’ jail cell, with him right on the other side. SHEESH! Thanks for turning me into BEEF JERKEY, Gort, ol’ buddy!

    Reply

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