An alien ship lands in Washington D.C., and from it emerges Klaatu (Michael Rennie), a humanoid from a neighbouring planet, who brings with him a message he wishes to convey to the various leaders of Earth. When they squabble pettily over where the meeting should be held, Klaatu instead decides to meet with the general public, so he rents a room in a boarding house, under the name Mr. Carpenter. There he meets the other lodgers, including Helen (Patricia Neal) and her young space-obsessed son Bobby (Billy Gray), and eventually he meets with Professor Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe), a learned scientist, in the hopes of discovering something worthwhile about Earth and mankind. Oh, and one other thing. Klaatu has a giant, omnipotent robot guardian called Gort, who has an eye-laser capable of disintegrating anything.
As a nerd, I like my science fiction, but I’ve never obsessed over it. I’m a fan of Star Wars, but I’m not a super fan, and the only Star Trek-related media I’ve seen is J. J. Abrams recent film. To be honest, Firefly has always been more my cup of tea, and that’s only science fiction in that its set in space, and that’s a similar situation here. The actual science fiction elements of The Day The Earth Stood Still are mere background details for a large section of the film, as it becomes almost a fish out of water tale of a man unfamiliar with his new surroundings, learning about a new culture, its eccentricities and foibles. Obviously there is still a great deal of the otherworldy – Klaatu is an alien after all, and there’s the robot capable of destroying worlds who is controlled by words and flashing lights – but the more memorable aspect is the social indictment; the message that we, as a civilisation, need to get our act together or suffer the consequences. It comes as no surprise that the film was remade in 2008 (though I’ve not yet seen it), as clearly had the events of this film actually taken place in 1951, then we certainly didn’t listen, as can be seen by the state of the world today. But I don’t want to get too political, so I’ll just say that message from the film back in the 50s, just six years after the end of the Second World War, is possibly just as relevant today.
Anyway, the film. Seeing as it was made over 60 years ago, its no real shock to find that the special effects for the most part don’t really stand up. Gort is quite blatantly a man in a suit (Lock Martin, of whose nine screen roles six were uncredited and one was deleted), wires are fairly visible in some scenes and footage is clearly sped up to indicate people running away. The laser and disintegration scenes are ropey at best, but I was thoroughly captivated by the shots of the spacecraft opening, with a doorway appearing on its seamless surface, and disappearing again just as effortlessly.
Michael Rennie seems perfectly cast as a creature not off this world, with his angular features, harsh cheekbones and a deliberate, considered approach to movement and speech making him seem passable for a human, but one who’s definitely a little… off. Which makes it something of a surprise when Helen has no qualms about leaving her son Bobby with this strange man she’s known for only a matter of hours as she goes gallanting off with her beau. There was a very high possibility of the kid becoming excruciatingly annoying – my girlfriend certainly thought he was – but I found his naivety endearing, even if he seemed far too respectful of his elders, in a manner unheard of today.
The film’s cinematography was brilliant, especially the use of shadows and silhouettes, and the imagery of Gort carrying the figure of Helen, as made famous by the poster. Bernard Herrmann’s score is also suitable sweeping and atmospheric. It’s no surprise that this film has become an integral part of classic science fiction, with the phrase “Klaatu, barada, nichto” (or is it necktie?) going down in history as one of the greatest quotes in cinema. I’m intrigued to now see the remake (if only for John Cleese, an idol of mine), but public opinion has left it not very high on my to-watch list.
Choose film 8/10