I don’t know exactly when I first saw this movie. It was maybe ten to fifteen years ago — a copy from the local library, no doubt. The DVD I borrowed this week for my second or third viewing could very well be the same one, unless that first viewing happened when I was in college. Having such murky memories of a film is unusual for me. The Day the Earth Stood Still didn’t leave a strong impression one way or the other. I simply found myself watching it because of its historical importance, and that was that. The film’s reputation might’ve had a lot to do with my decision to award it 3 ½ stars. In any case, that’s all thoroughly behind me. I was looking forward to the chance to reappraise the film at least six or seven years since I’d last seen it.
The critic Fernando Croce hit upon just the right analogy to describe Robert Wise’s 1951 film, The Day the Earth Stood Still: “If, as an attempt to inject ‘class’ into a critically disdained genre, this is the High Noon of the flying-saucer set, consider Hawks’s The Thing its Rio Bravo.” The two alien films were released only a few months apart, so one is not a deliberate response to the other, but the analysis is accurate. The Day the Earth Stood Still and High Noon were both more revered in their time than the corresponding Howard Hawks productions. Little had changed decades later, when The Day the Earth Stood Still and High Noon got inducted into the National Film Registry first (Rio Bravo didn’t receive that honor until two years ago!). Nevertheless, for a certain kind of film lover, the Hawks films are a great deal more praiseworthy than those Serious Artistic Films. For such people, and I count myself among them, those scare quotes around the word “class” are a cue to roll our eyes.
The film’s historical importance is still worth elucidating. There’s an awful lot of subsequent pop culture that owes something or other to the story, themes, and production design of this film. The most notable examples would be the utopianism of Star Trek and the gently superseded horror of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Contact with an alien species was the stuff of disreputable fantasy in 1951, but this film opened the door for a more serious treatment of the subject. Edmund H. North’s script is an inquiry into what such an event would look like in the real world, not so much in terms of biological questions, but philosophical ones. The primary question the film poses is a surprising one: not “Where do the aliens come from?” or “what are they like?” but “what in heaven’s name is the matter with us?”
The Day the Earth Stood Still is well-known as a Cold War allegory, and in fact there’s not much of any subtext to speak of. The atomic bomb alerts the citizens of “the other planets” that Earthlings have become dangerous, and an emissary is sent to warn us not to go marching into space with our weapons of mass destruction. This is the idea on which Star Trek built its whole premise: the introduction of a third party might be the catalyst that finally leads to worldwide brotherhood and the end of war. This film can only offer a hint of this outcome, located in the diverse faces of the intelligentsia assembled to hear the alien’s message. Before this conclusion, the emphasis is on the fear and suspicion that greets the flying saucer — a distrust of outsiders that’s as topical today as it was then. The film exhibits a single-minded devotion to its message and finds the most self-satisfied ways of delivering it, from a pious pause at the Lincoln Memorial to an on-the-nose breakfast conversation. Perhaps the dismissal of U.S.-Soviet tensions as “petty squabbles” felt brave at the time, but the film’s approach to the Cold War doesn’t look at all radical or transgressive today. The alien, Klaatu, simply warns that any aggression by Earth on another planet will result in apocalyptic retaliation. This is basically how the nuclear arms race would function for the next forty years.
Aesthetically, the film works pretty well. Director Robert Wise and his editor William Reynolds put together a few effective montages of the worldwide reaction to the spaceship’s arrival. The special effects, used sparingly in a dialogue-heavy film, hold up as well as could be expected. Michael Rennie’s performance as Klaatu is the most interesting aspect of the film, starting with his entirely human-like appearance. (Rennie was human — English, to be specific.) The decision not to give him a mask or strange makeup is essential to the middle portion of the film, when Klaatu hides out in a boarding house. Rennie’s job is either to stand out or blend in as each scene requires. He’s quite effective, portraying a gentle soul with a paternalistic streak. The script repeatedly calls on him to say some variation of “You people sure are backward,” but the sadness in his voice is real. Outside of the most iconic scenes, there are two stand-out moments involving Rennie. The first is his arrival at the boarding house, a shadowy figure standing at the door. This is the one time that the film persuasively takes the humans’ point of view concerning this mysterious “visitor.” The second is when Klaatu solves a vexing mathematical problem for a human scientist he’s been wanting to meet. A few confident strokes on a blackboard do more to establish the aliens’ advanced civilization than any number of speeches about interplanetary robot police.
The Day the Earth Stood Still will always be an interesting film, particularly in its historical context. The flabbiness of the message aside, there’s something poignant in reflecting on the ways technology and warfare developed side by side. People in 1951 had seen the finest scientific minds in the world produce one horrifying weapon after another, culminating in the big one. With rocket technology developing at about the same time, it makes perfect sense that someone might worry about humanity’s next depredation. Blowing up the moon, for example. Sixty-five years later, I think it’s safe to say we’re not going to do anything like that, nor have we annihilated ourselves. But pleas for peace and tolerance are always timely. It’s just that the film’s so stuffy and long-winded. Klaatu’s message never has any real surprise or bite to it, but the film treats him like an amalgam of Moses coming down from the mountain and Christ during Passion Week. I don’t feel like there are unexplored depths here, although I could always be wrong about that. For the time being, I’m happy to dock the film half a star and let the spaceship take off until such a time as I need to hear the message again.