Friday, October 21, 2016

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

This was one of my dad’s favorite movies. When conversation turned to the flicks he grew up with – the ones which really made an impression – Day always got a mention, and his eyes would light up with fondness and excitement. When we got cable in the 80s, I noticed that the Disney channel had it on their schedule, so I recorded it with our brand-new VCR. I showed it to him - the first time he had seen it since he was twelve – and he got that same look in his eyes.

I can see why he loved it; The Day the Earth Stood Still was one of the first alien-encounter films released by a major studio. But perhaps more importantly, it was also one of the first to use its topic matter metaphorically: it used its robots and flying saucers to comment on our own destructive, xenophobic tendencies, the same tendencies that have sustained a several-thousand year history of global carnage and destruction. (Its proximity in release to the end of WII also likely added to the sense of urgency and apocalyptic fear.) The critical and commercial success of Day begat other classics like War of the Worlds, Forbidden Planet and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, helping to ensure the 50s legacy as the Golden Age of serious science fiction.

Michael Rennie plays the alien Klaatu, who, along with his steely, voiceless robot buddy Gort, lands on earth in the middle of the Washington, D.C. mall. An unfortunate locale, as it turns out, for he is greeted not with open American arms but immense suspicion, and a shot by an army rifle when he flicks open a medical device. He is detained and questioned; his request for a meeting of the world leaders so he can explain is purpose cannot be granted. And so Klaatu, using an alias of Carpenter, escapes so he can mix and mingle among the common folk, hoping to ascertain exactly why this odd species has such difficulty working together.

He rents a room at a boarding house, befriending a widow named Helen (Partricia Neal), and taking her young son Bobby under his wing. Through the boy’s innocence, Klaatu gets the basics on earth, and learns why its inhabitants are so distrusting. But determined to get his warning across that the planet will destroy itself if allowed to continue on its current path, he succeeds in convincing an esteemed scientist to call together a group of colleagues for an audience. After getting shot again, ostensibly fatally (he us healed by Gort on the mother ship), he manages to deliver one final, scathing admonishment to the doomed earthling before heading back home. Oh well, he tried.

Day dates surprisingly well, perhaps because its sci-fi subject preserves its content in cheese, allowing for a disarming, kitchy sense of enjoyment. Or perhaps just having an earnest, clearly-told story holds up exceedingly well in a hyped-up era of cinematic excess. Whatever the reason, it’s a barrel of fun, and yes, it did make me think about the hostile, natavistic way our government, and its people, operates, even in a modern day setting (or maybe especially in a modern day setting). Sure, Klaatu does engage in a bit of Billy Jack-esque hypocrisy when he implores Earth to lay down its arms and be more peaceful, or else he may have to obliterate the entire planet, but such inconsistencies can be overlooked, even enjoyed, in the context of its Saturday-afternoon matinee spirit of fun pulp.

This, of course, was the career role for star Michael Rennie; despite over fifty years of experience in film and TV, it is the role of Klaatu for which he will be best remembered. Patricia Neal as Helen never looked more luminous – although it does seem as though most of her performance consists of looking upwards, in wide-eyed shock, at any given source of supernatutre. And once again we have Fox-contracted Hugh Marlowe as Helen’s fiancé and Klaatu’s betrayer – I’ve started now to appreciate the contract system, seeing a series of films from one studio and noticing the consistency in talent. Sure makes perfect sense for an actor – for the studio, you know they’re good, for the actor, steady work.

This one still deserves its classic status. Dad, you had good taste in movies, even at twelve.

                            Rating:  ****

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