For years I’ve been hearing about the 1951 movie The Day The Earth Stood Still and when I learned it was remade in 2008 I became even more curious. I rented it this weekend and can now share my thoughts on what is one of the most influential science-fiction films for English speakers.
At first I thought it was an original story but it was actually lifted from a short story titled Farewell to the Master by Harry Bates. Since the movie is 59 years old I don’t have to worry about spoilers. The special effects look very poor by today’s standards but in the words of the screenplay’s author (interviewed in the DVD’s extras) the point of the movie wasn’t to offer audiences a special effects extravaganza. Rather, the point was to deliver a stirring and thought-provoking message about the state of the world at that time. Very well, I won’t worry about the special effects and instead focus on an examination of this important message.
The movie opens with people around the world becoming aware of an unidentified flying object entering Earth’s atmosphere and finally coming to rest on a lawn in the heart of Washington DC. A man in a space suit emerges and, when offering a strange gift from the stars, is minunderstood and wounded by a soldier’s gun. After recovering in an army hospital Klaatu, the star man, tells the U.S. president’s secretary to call a meeting of all the leaders of the world – he has a message for the people of Earth. After learning that the world’s leaders refuse to gather together Klaatu disappears from the hospital in order to spend time with Earth people and gain insight into how they came to be so difficult. Taking the name of Mr. Carpenter, Klaatu gets a snappy suit and blends in with Earth people. After initial frustration, Klaatu comes up with Plan B – convince an influential scientist to gather the leading scientists of the world by the spaceship to hear Klaatu’s message. After a tussle with some soldiers and holding his robot Gort back from destroying the world, Klaatu delivers his message and ascends once again to the stars.
Although long heralded as an important and thought-provoking film, I was disappointed to find that the thoughts provoked were mostly reactions against the simple-mindedness of the writer’s viewpoint and message. The Day The Earth Stood Still has the dubious honor of being years ahead of its time pushing a simplistic and immature agenda on science-fiction movie goers.
The core of the plot, that an interstellar government sent an envoy to Earth to inform it that if it uses its new atomic weapons to threaten other planets it would be quickly destroyed, is quite an interesting one. However, the core idea is handled so poorly that the movie is mostly wasted. No leaders or scientists of Earth sit up and pay attention to the fact that human technology has finally reached a point where distant and advanced alien races are getting worried. Despite the actions of their envoy, the aliens are never recognized for being heavy-handed, short-sighted reactionaries.
If these advanced and noble aliens had really been monitoring Earth’s communications for years why do they insist on treating all nations as if they were at the same point of readyness to hear their message? Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom in 1951 were at very different levels of technology and treatment of their fellow human beings, to use just one example. Klaatu has a childish inflexibility and insistance on getting his way when talking to the U.S. president’s secretary. Why wasn’t he more willing to work with the situation as he found it? Wouldn’t such an advanced race take a more long-term view of their goal to open relations with Earth and help it see their point of view? Why must Klaatu’s message be given to all world leaders at the same time? Why can’t he be more pragmatic and address the ones that are willing to listen and then speak to the other leaders on their own terms? By anyone’s standards, Klaatu is an uncommonly inept ambassador. He was openly insulting to the president’s secretary when he said he wasn’t willing to tolerate stupidity.
I don’t want to dwell on minor details of the story. Details sometimes have to be sacrificed to keep the story moving. However, one problem was impossible to ignore. At the end of the movie when Mrs. Benson approaches the spaceship she has no trouble reaching it. Are we expected to believe that it was guarded by only 2 soldiers!?
The soundtrack for this movie was very well done. The eerie, foreign sounds of the opening title music set the scene very well for a movie about strange aliens.
The writer’s narrow minded views were always being thrust upon the viewer. It was especially disappointing for me to see his open contempt for common people – a view also present in Isaac Asimov’s fiction. Only 4 people in the movie attain the writer’s notion of enlightenment – and one of them only because he’s a young boy!
It’s at the end of the movie that Klaatu tells us about the advanced civilization that sent him and, not surprisingly, about the screenplay author’s world view. We see a naive faith in the idea that the United Nations is the best agency on Earth and that it should be given more power. When Klaatu says, “The test of any such higher authority is, of course, the police force that supports it” it’s easy to see that a plea is being made to heighten the United Nation’s power. This blogger is thankful that the people of Earth had more wisdom than Klaatu.
Klaatu talks about a political system of the aliens that places all faith and all power in a robotic police force. This blind faith in a system of rules or technology is all too familiar for many of us and it’s disappointing that it persists to this day.
The statement most remembered from the movie is Klaatu’s moving words, “There must be security for all or no one is secure.” Although blatantly false, I can see how many people would want the statement to be true. It would have been nicer to see the statement framed more intelligently. “There must be security for all or there is no justice,” for example. The idea that the groups of people who get the short end of the stick will rise up and attack their oppressors is popular in some circles but not always true. The Christians were persecuted horribly for many years by the Roman emperors but they never formed any armies to attack Rome. And besides, sometimes the people who get screwed were screwed as a result of their own decisions – not the decisions of the people they decide to blame!
I couldn’t help but notice Klaatu’s acknowledgement of an “almight spirit” right after his machine restores him at the end of the movie. I’m willing to bet the 2008 remake makes no mention of this almighty spirit.
All things considered, I don’t consider The Day The Earth Stood Still to be a very good movie but I still recommend it to all science-fiction fans. It’s important to see the early sources of the wishy-washy, poorly-thought-out attempts at philosophy that get pushed on us so often in today’s sci-fi films.