History of Sci-Fi Cinema 10: “The Day the Earth Stood Still”

10-DayTitleThe Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
Written by Edmund H North, based on a novel by Harry Bates
Directed by Robert Wise
Starring Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal, Billy Gray, Sam Stephens
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A sharp, intelligent sci-fi thriller with a message of warning to the people of Earth to stop being dicks. Or rather, you can be dicks all you want, but if you spread it out beyond your own borders, you’re going to get smacked hard. This is, quite literally, one of the greatest films ever made. It has been acknowledged by the American Film Institute as the fifth best sci-fi film ever; it repeatedly gets included in Top 100 lists (sci-fi or otherwise); it holds a 94% rating from Rotten Tomatoes; it received a special Golden Glove Award for “promoting international understanding.” And it was cited by Arthur C Clarke as one of the greatest sci-fi films of all time — higher than his own film, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

In my last two blog posts (on Destination Moon and Rocketship X-M) I reviewed two films from 1950. And while I consider the 50s to be the true golden age of science fiction cinema, it’s The Day the Earth Stood Still that truly ushers in that golden age.

There’s really nothing I can say about this movie that hasn’t been said thousands of times by analysts and enthusiasts with greater command of the written word than I have. I can remember seeing this as a young boy. I was mesmerized by it. Of course I was drawn to Gort and the ship, but unlike a lot of the films that I loved as a kid, this one seemed very grown up. It seemed important. And interestingly, it still does. Watching it now, it has lost none of its magic, none of its gravity. That’s pretty impressive for a film that brings together Aunt Bee, Gunga Din, Olivia Walton (Patricia Neal starred in the original TV movie of The Waltons), Bud from Father Knows Best, and the Keeper from Lost in Space. Funny how time makes you see things differently, isn’t it? But while other films from its time seem dated and clunky with awkward dialogue and exaggerated acting, TDtESS doesn’t. Okay, the fashions are very obviously of their time. Bobby’s “gee wiz” manner of
speaking seems amusingly quaint. But the writing is solid and tells a chilling tale, and the actors approach their roles with a realism and genuineness that ground the sci-fi concepts concretely in the real world concerns the film raises.

This is one of the truest examples of the Frankenstein model of science fiction as morality play, only this is more direct. This is a message, a warning, brought directly to us: behave as you will while you’re at home, but if you leave home and bring your crap out here with you, there will be consequences. Its nearly biblical, with Rennie as a barely veiled Christ figure (his name is “Carpenter,” he moves among the common people, he dies and is resurrected, he preaches a message of peace, he defers to an
“Almighty Spirit”). And that message, sadly, will most likely never go out of style, making this film timeless. No matter when it is watched, it will resonate.

With a minimum of special effects, a simplicity of approach, and only one genuinely “sci-fi” set, this movie never loses its alien quality, thanks in great part to Rennie’s performance and the tone of controlled threat to our world. It achieves what many big budget films fail to do, and that is convey a sense of real unease, a sense of dread, and it is accomplished through brilliant writing and excellent performances. To watch this and the 2008 remake with Keanu Reeves is an interesting study in contrasts.

So enjoy The Day the Earth Stood Still. It has very few betters. And if you follow my blog, I hope you enjoy the 50s because we’re going to be there for quite a while — there’s SO MUCH amazing stuff waiting ahead!

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