THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL
Remember, if we use nuclear weapons, condescending aliens will come and kill us with weapons even worse than nuclear weapons. I think you might've had to be there, but The Day the Earth Stood Still remains a fine allegory, and a pretty good movie, though it has a little trouble hiding its flabby middle.
Directed by Robert Wise
Written by Edmund H. North (based on the short story "Farewell to the Master" by Harry Bates)
With Michael Rennie (Klaatu), Patricia Neal (Helen Benson), Billy Gray (Bobby Benson), Sam Jaffe (Prof. Jacob Barnhardt), Hugh Marlowe (Tom Stevens), and Lock Martin ft. a fiberglass statue (Gort)
Spoiler alert: severe
Science fiction just doesn't come more iconic than 1951's two major studio efforts in the genre: in April, RKO's The Thing From Another World arrived, and it was followed, five months later in September, by 20th Century Fox's The Day the Earth Stood Still. It's hard to imagine any pair of movies that could still share the same basic one-sentence summary ("an alien arrives on Earth and people flip their shit") winding up more distinct in their actual substance than these two; yet it's also hard not to regard them as essentially two sides of the same coin. Both are classics that carved out permanent positions in the canon, in no small part thanks to the real A-list filmmakers behind them (producer Howard Hawks in the case of The Thing, and director Robert Wise in the case of Day). Beyond that, they're also each the prototype for all to come afterwards: for if The Thing was Hollywood's first serious attempt to channel the paranoia of nuclear war and international communism through the lens of an Outer Space Monster, then Day was every bit as much Hollywood's first serious attempt to use science fiction to harangue an audience by way of its first serious Outer Space Jesus.
The line of Space Jesuses (Jesi?) that began here in 1951 has proven at least as enduring as its abominable counterpart, albeit usually not quite as popular. Even so, Day turns out to have a couple of advantages The Thing doesn't when it came to sticking around. Most importantly, I think, while both films were remade decades later with more flash and higher tech, Day does not stand in its remake's shadow to nearly the same extent as The Thing—in fact, it doesn't get any noticeable shade whatsoever, inasmuch as Scott Derrickson's 2008 go at the material is treated almost exclusively as a footnote to its predecessor, accorded nothing like the same respect John Carpenter's take on The Thing gets. (And that's for very good reason, because as you may or may not remember, Derrickson's film is somehow both gaudy and gray—and boring—and it's simply not quite good, even if it does have a few minor points of original interest, like its almost-too-on-the-nose casting of Keanu Reeves as an unemotive alien, or the updating of its message for an audience more concerned with environmental catastrophe than nuclear armageddon.)
Furthermore, it hasn't hurt the '51 Day's prospects for long-term survival that while The Thing was already effectively remade, dozens of times just in the decade following its release—to the point that The Thing's template of "kill! kill! kill! what we don't understand!" sometimes seems, from a distance, only like a really good version of what everybody else was already going to do anyway—Day's premise was never so thoroughly strip-mined by imitators, its direct rip-offs comparatively few. Sure, this likely says something depressing about the American psyche (possibly moreso when we consider the only person in The Thing advocating peaceful coexistence is a traitor), but we should concede that it's easier—and typically much more cinematic—to monger some fear in the form of a scary monster costume than it is to package a technocratic, left-leaning ideology into the form of a narrative that doesn't feel like a lecture.
It's a troubling asymmetry, really, but that's life.
The good news is Day succeeds more-or-less at this difficult task, which is another big reason it persists. Nevertheless, as always, Day's Space Jesus is still essentially just a mouthpiece for his creators to use as they see fit (his creators being Day's producer Julian Blaustein, and, to some lesser extent, its screenwriter, Edmund North, adapting the opening and closing paragraphs of a Harry Bates short story, and, frankly, rather freely adapting even those). Unsurprisingly, those creators still use their mouthpiece to blast their message of peace and shame at top volume, and Day's heavenly savior, Klaatu, surely couldn't be more of a Jesus if he tried—Day's a movie where its hero assumes the name of "Carpenter," and if that's too damn subtle, it's a movie where its hero dies and is briefly resurrected in order to wag his finger at his followers some more—but Klaatu remains one of the more unique and interesting takes on the archetype. As for why, we'll get to that later; first, we should talk about how he got here.
It happened without warning, which turns out to have been something of a mistake on Klaatu's part: on a summer day in Washington D.C., a flying saucer from beyond our imaginations makes landfall in a park, terrifying the locals and bringing down a military cordon who's there to greet Klaatu as he disembarks from his strange, inhuman craft, dressed in strange, inhuman apparel. Inevitably, Klaatu barely has time to say he's come in peace before a trigger-happy soldier shoots him. He has even less time to tell the much bigger creation that's presently followed him out—the robot Gort—to refrain from making a holocaustal counterattack. With the alien passing into unconsciousness, the Army has no better idea what to do with him than to send him to the hospital, where he recovers (rapidly, even miraculously), and where Klaatu solemnly tells the President's aide part of the reason why he's come: to arrange a symposium of all the nations of Earth, whereupon he can tell everyone, all at once, the full reason for his arrival.
Informed that this is an impossibly heavy diplomatic lift, Klaatu realizes soon enough that the American government's main goal now is to use his presence as some sort of advantage, and, unwilling to take any one faction's side in a war between what amounts to red and black ants, he breaks out of the hospital, and seeks refuge at a boarding house; it is here that he meets the widow Helen Benson and her boy, Bobby, and surreptitiously uses them as a way to explore the human condition a little while trying to obtain some alternative means of getting the whole world together in one place so he can tell them what's going on upstairs. However, the government is naturally engaged in an all-out manhunt for the alien fugitive, and it's surely only a matter of time before they find him again. All the while, that robot Gort's just standing there, waiting; and who can say what it will do, should its "master" come to any further harm?
To be brutally honest, there's a lot of problems embedded in this story, starting with Klaatu's blithe descent upon D.C. which ends exactly how he ought to have expected it to, and it continues with the American authorities' equally blithe (and even-more stupid) attempts to contain and constrain the all-powerful ambassador's mission—trying to keep him imprisoned in a hospital at the outset seems almost explicable (you could argue it's for his protection as much as anything), but there's plenty that doesn't even approach a rational way of dealing with an alien force, since, while Klaatu's running around, the U.S. Army is literally taking blowtorches to his vehicle, more-or-less exclusively to prompt some exposition about his technology (I mean, what if it wasn't wonder-metal, and they could get in? what then? do they apologize to Klaatu—or to Gort—for putting a giant hole in their celestial ride?). Ultimately, of course, the Army runs Klaatu down like a dog and shoots him—that seemed both avoidable and unwise. Gracious, if it weren't for the fact that this movie is so sexist it winds up staging the woman consorting with the alien as if she's literally been turned invisible, Helen wouldn't have been able to get to Gort, and repeat her friend's immortal command, "Klaatu barada nikto" (varyingly translated, but I'd guess, "Klaatu's dead, help, but make no reprisal"), thereby preventing the omnipotent robot from destroying everybody.
Day (not-very-subtly) presents itself as an allegory in support of the then-new United Nations, and in opposition to the self-interested scheming of individual ones; in the process, it comes off so world-wearily cynical that it almost comes back around again to merely dumb, positing an Earth so disintegrated that it can't manage to put representatives around a table even in the face of a likely extraterrestrial ultimatum. It's also not entirely clear why Klaatu needs every nation's personal representation, either, as he's certainly not here to negotiate anything (it's certainly never clear at all why he chose to land in the capital city of superpower, also presently a belligerent in an ongoing war!). His only abiding motivation seems to be a concern for the appearance of evenhandedness, and, in fact, the "plot" of the film, such as it is—Klaatu convincing the "smartest man on Earth," cosmologist Dr. Barnhardt, to organize an audience of international scientists—can be somewhat fairly described as Klaatu pretending he's doing what he said he came to do, without actually doing anything like it. And he could've just done what he wanted instantaneously, without ever setting foot here in the first place.
On the other hand, that's clearly taking Day more literally than is necessary or useful. The basic metaphor of it holds up fine, after all—Klaatu, the alien, almost wholly flummoxed by the fragmentation of the human species across an array of warring polities whose concerns are, at best, entirely parochial to one such as he, and whose petty squabblings are indeed halted by Klaatu's alien power for the span of one half hour during a demonstration of his civilization's frankly unimaginable technological might. It's a fantastic set-piece of silence (and deliberate non-action), that doesn't mind being incredibly creepy, or letting some of that creepiness rub off on the seemingly-affable ambassador we've been following this whole time (Klaatu's occasional creepiness allows Bobby's Hardy Boys-esque, largely bush-based investigations into the alien's comings and goings to have some suspense, too, despite being an awfully lo-fi kid's adventure module planted into the middle of a story of cosmic portent; and it even almost covers up the fact that we've apparently just switched protagonists for a scene or two). Well, this is one of the benefits of having Robert Wise direct.
Though he was relatively early in his long career at this point, he already showcases his excellent sense of the uncanny (it's no great mystery why he did no other sci-fi in this decade, or even the next, but at least we have The Haunting, which doubles down on this essential skillset). He maintains a nearly-flawless balance between what Klaatu appears to be, which isn't terribly scary at all (especially within Michael Rennie's aloof but basically humane, even playful performance), and what Klaatu actually is, which is very scary. Realizing that this tension is where his movie lives or dies, Wise tends to stage his scenes for maximum impact wherever there's any impact to be had: the noirish, even Expressionistic shadows that throw "Mr. Carpenter" the would-be lodger into a foyer of sinister darkness; or, earlier, the jarring jump cut from Klaatu's wounded body to the colossus Gort, who has not so much emerged from the saucer but just happens to be standing there. (Incidentally, I'm of the firm opinion that Day wouldn't even be close to a great movie in color: there's something about its particular deployment of stark black-and-white photography that looks exactly right, and while not every shot Leo Trover took is something special—there's a lot of quotidian rooms in here, none of any particular loveliness—the overall effect of Day, and the Gort scenes especially, is heightened into something rare and mythic by being presented in whites and blacks and not too many grays in between.)
And, filmed as well as it is, it's hard to deny that Gort is a wonderful creation itself! Gort might be just another incarnation of the same fundamental idea explored not-altogether-well by The Thing—that is, a tall man in a jumpsuit—but Gort manages to be a far more indelible piece of sci-fi design. The helmet obviously helps. But the extremely tall Lock Martin, as supplemented with a fiberglass stand-in, was possibly the perfect chassis upon which to build the even-taller "monster" of this movie, Martin's well-attested near-immobility within the suit notwithstanding. Or maybe withstanding after all; that same near-immobility is a major part of the impression Gort leaves upon you. The optical effects—and, even more, the sound effects—that attend the exercise of Gort's powers come together with Gort's almost complete stillness within the frame, and this combination of cacophonous sound and apparent imperturbability is the root of the robot's power, even though truthfully Gort barely pretends to be much more than what it actually is, namely a surprisingly frail giant who can't move, see anything, or (after a while) breathe.
That's movie magic for you.
Obviously, the mood Wise casts depends vitally upon all kinds of sound: not just effects, but Bernard Hermann's otherwordly, ethereal, and mostly-electronic score, too. It is only not terrifically memorable today because in this one respect, if not many others, 1950s sci-fi did take Day's lead. Wise also takes recourse in a relatively high budget for a 50s' SF flick, which afforded him some fairly sumptuous visual effects, even beyond "Gort eye lasers." The compositing work is occasionally so seamless that you're more likely to ask "how did Wise get them to close down the Lincoln Memorial?" (or, maybe, "How much did that Lincoln Memorial set cost?") than you are to guess that it's actually "just" some special photography creating an illusion that Rennie and Billy Gray are standing there by themselves. The emptied streets of D.C. and other world cities are likewise so convincing you might forget there's trickery involved.
So the real problem with Day we'll have to find buried deeper in Day's bones; and that is its extremely odd structure, which entails a great, exciting, mysterious beginning, and a solid, scolding, meaningful end, and not much to speak of in a long, lingering, surprisingly-uneventful middle, which is (not counting the Earth standing still, of course) mostly concerned with our alien emissary-tourist wandering around D.C. and northern Virginia for at least a full half-hour, in the guise of a babysitter for a human kid he just met, whose human mom is almost comically willing to entrust her child to a near-total stranger in order to go out and, I guess, get laid.
This, somehow, is a lot of the movie! But at least Klaatu picked a nice town to sightsee in.
Meanwhile, the proto-paranoid thriller aspects of Day, led in part by Helen's beau Tom, are almost certainly only there to get the runtime up (Tom is foundationally awful: his motivations are as petty as they could be, revolving around how catching an alien will help his career, but he's, like, a vacuum salesman or something). Fortunately, Day picks back up completely, around the time that Klaatu's super-science reintegrates his body and soul. Now Klaatu finally lets us in on the full truth of his mission, which turns out to be extremely hostile, after all. And that's what makes Klaatu unique in his role, since despite all his fraternization on one hand and his martyrdom on the other, his opinion of us as a species turns out not to matter one bit. For our judge is Gort, and Gort's robotic kin, not Klaatu, nor any other biological arbiter: all intelligent life in the universe exists now under a regime set up eons in the past by the mutual consent of the first civilizations, and Klaatu is here solely to tell us that we too are bound by these galactic laws—whether we would prefer to be or not, for once we acquired technology that made us a threat, we became a valid target in the cyclopean eyes of his emotionless electronic masters. Klaatu's surprisingly cold on this point, and despite "liking" us, holds us now at a definitive arm's length. He doesn't relate a lot of specifics, but we do get the gist of it: behave—which means, one imagines, behave better—or die.
It comes as an astonishingly brutal reversal of Klaatu's own various kindnesses, and it also gives Rennie's occasional haughty, flint-eyed intimations of superior perspective the retrospective shape of a dagger, since when he's talking about the "fate of the Earth," what he's really talking about, in brass tacks, is an impending interstellar police action (which sounds an awful lot like genocide, but of course any picture of Pyongyang from 1951 will bring the precise same word to mind). In its final moments, Day turns out to be modestly horrifying in its reminder that in the age of aerial (and atomic) warfare, a war of peace would be hard to distinguish, from the inside, from a war of extermination.
That which is indistinguishable from magic:
- Pretty much everything Klaatu and Gort ever do appears to be powered by impossible handwavium... but it's so cool. One is impressed above all by Klaatu's ability to shut down all the planet's power sources by remote, though especially because he can limit this effect to non-essential services only, leaving (for example) hospitals and airborne planes functioning so as not to kill a few hundred thousand people in the process. In its way, it's almost scarier than if he hadn't bothered, for his control is simultaneously so vast and so individualized. In fact, how does this demigod ever let himself get shot?
- The short story upon which Day is based, "Farewell to the Master," is not very good; its main attraction is as a little mystery (which Day somewhat spoils for you, albeit not entirely, though I shall if you finish reading this paragraph), and in a very real sense "Master" breeds a very slight amount of resentment for making itself intriguing enough to finish without also bothering to make its intervening 10,000 words very entertaining. Anyway, in the novella as well as in the film, Klaatu is resurrected, though in the prose it's more like he's reincarnated (a couple of times, actually), by way of Gort ("Gnut" in the book) surreptitiously using the human records of Klaatu's landing as a basis for a technological back-reconstruction. The notion of a giant robot being surreptitious is, of course, rather stupid, but the core SFnal idea is is positively dazzling, especially for a story written in 1940, long, long before litSF had begun to routinely grapple with such questions of identity in a posthuman milieu. Well, the process depicted within the film is much lamer (it's basically a benign Frankenstein within a 50s flying saucer aesthetic) and it is, like everything else, essentially inexplicable (and therefore unexplained). Plus it comes with the Hays Code-mandated caveat that only God can bring a creature back to life, which makes it make even less sense than it already does, on top of being annoying. Bummer.
The morality of the past, in the future!:
- Being in a very real sense an allegory in support of the United Nations' ability to preserve peace through the force and threat of force—something that has proven in many respects to be a useful tool for American and European interests (and was even more a creature of the developed world, and the capitalist world specifically, in 1951)—it's very hard to overlook that the movie supports at least a moderately imperialist perspective in our real world, despite its high-minded liberalism. In fact, for all of Day's obvious pacifism, it would be hard as hell to read into it any criticism of the U.N.'s contemporary police action in Korea, specifically (not that I personally disagree with that action, mind you). Either way, it's actually really easy to square the film's progressive "anti-war" message with the blunt fact of the film's historical context, which put it right in the middle of America's second most-successful intervention in the Far East; so even though Blaustein and Fox had concerns about the political nature of its content, it's perhaps a little too much to give either the producer or the company actual credit for going against the tide, because their movie pretty much is the tide, and is about "beating the shit out of weaker powers in order to preserve the order you've ordained, for good or ill, whether those powers agree with that order or not." The only difference, and the main resonance of the piece, is that it decisively puts the shoe on the other foot.
- Being at the mercy of a race of robots that cannot be pleaded with, cannot be stopped, and conspire to emotionlessly judge us by a set of arbitrary rules laid down by aliens before human civilization even existed certainly fills one with a certain kind of awe.