Classic Musings: Day the Earth Stood Still ('51)

It's hard to imagine the science fiction genre as a whole without Robert Wise's The Day the Earth Stood Still. Blazing a trail for the genre early in the '50s, it would set the precedent -- and a near unobtainable benchmark -- for all other extra-terrestrial films to follow. Without it, would we have had either of Spielberg's cosmic fairytales, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T., or even the entirety of Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek universe? It's possible, but they'd probably be very different. Even modern alien films like Independence Day wouldn't have a throwback reference, though some might consider a lack of "ID4" in the sci-fi mix to be a blessing.

Still, without the blueprints and ideas laid out by Wise's work, we wouldn't even have these popcorn flicks to cough up exuberant amount of cash to see in the Cineplex. But The Day the Earth Stood Still is far from being solely about other-worldly visitors; what gives it the longevity that still stretches to this day comes in the way it peers into humanity, especially our limited capacity to adapt to and understand concepts that reach outside our little bubbles. It's a masterwork of science fiction, but for a slew of intricate, intelligent reasons that you might not expect.

Wise's plot, based off of Harry Bates' story, is simple enough: a flying saucer has landed smack dab in the center of Washington, D.C., drawing scores of curious onlookers to its touchdown site. To the eyes of thousands upon thousands of nervous citizens, two entities step forth from the ship; one is a seemingly human individual instantly taken into custody, while the other is an ominous looking metal robot that, upon finding a spot outside of the U.F.O., has completely stopped moving -- as if awaiting orders. The human-like visitor, named Klaatu (Michael Rennie, The Lost World), has come to Earth for the sole purpose of warning about the impending doom that might come about if we neglect to cease our petty wars and development of element-based weapons.

Operating as a critique for the post-WWII environment entrenched in the Cold War, The Day the Earth Stood Still can be quite deceptive if a glance or two is taken at its artwork, still shots, and the iconic, almost monolithic, stature of that metallic robot that it's become famous for. Assumptions could easily be made that this operates on a purely science fiction level, demonstrating death rays and ominous flying saucers as the Thermelin (the instrument used for the signature eerie '50s wobbly effect in the sound design) coats the surface. In fact, that's far from the case; Robert Wise's sci-fi picture operates on much more meaningful levels. It's these concepts that have kept it fresh -- and surprisingly relevant with today's societal conflicts -- over the years, which will probably continue for years to come if the globe doesn't latch onto some of its sprawling concepts.

One conversation held around a dining table earlier in the film features a group of characters discussing Klaatu and his presence on Earth, wondering why he might be here and for what purpose, or purposes. Suddenly, the gears shift in the conversation and a discussion arises that changes his status from being an alien to being a foreign spy -- which evokes even more fear and hostility than the idea of him being from another planet. There's one clear message that The Day the Earth Stood Still persistently communicates: in all our vast experience and untapped inexperience with the universe, there's an undeniable possibility that other human lifeforms exist on scattered planets -- and they might not be all about trying to ensnare the human race, capture loopy farmers for probing experiments, etc. Instead, it bluntly informs us of the ideal that humankind poses a much stronger threat than those curious other-worldly entities, along with the fact that they might be looking down on our pointless bickering with a smirk and a shaking of the head. There's a shaky, strained wire regarding global tension that Wise's film tightropes across, embodying the undertones of the time period that epitomizes post-McCarthy hysteria and activity in the nuclear disarmament effort.

But remember, this is a society fallen victim to the radio talents of Orson Welles' War of the Worlds, as he tricked the people into believing that the earth was under attack by aliens during his 1938 broadcast. In a similar, pre-WWII environment, people took the content at face value, believing that alien warfare was adding onto the already-tense situation. Media perception on both ends only highlights and intensifies mania, which also plays a rather sizable role in The Day the Earth Stood Still. When an ominous, disc-like object floats down to Earth and opens to reveal a ironclad robot with a human-like figure controlling it, the natural reaction could be fear -- or curiosity, or acceptance. Media's engineering of major events, however, aims for hysterics, which creates the pick-and-choose dynamic in telling people what to think and feel about the possibility of extra-terrestrial life. Wise's film opts to go the "fear" route, as most media outlets do, which leads to the cherry-picking of material to convey to the film's absorbent victims. It's a clear critique on mass-media and its manipulative nature, highlighted by subtle clues like the posturing of newscasters that relay the information and the excising of non-hysterical content from the crowd at the spacecraft's touchdown site.

It's not just the themes that hold up well over the years, either. The Day the Earth Stood Still was crafted in 1951, a time when Hollywood was growing more and more experimental with crafting science fiction material on-screen in unique ways. Surprisingly, the careful techniques used in Wise's picture still look fantastic, from the presence of the flying saucer as it soars above and touchdowns within Washington D.C. to the usage of "death rays" pouring from the eyes of the ominous robot Gort. When the film begins to ramp up its sci-fi elements near the second half of the picture -- devoting the first half to building tension with its thematic poignancy -- it becomes both terrifying and engrossing to watch as the advanced methods of technological prowess flex their muscles on the world's overestimated grasp on technology's boundaries. Nowadays, computer generation can shatter and liquefy most types of matter while making just about any focal object fly; still, using simple techniques with found objects and camera tricks, there's tangibility that The Day the Earth Stood Still's production crew infuses into its stripped-down scenes that still work with full potency to this day -- which, in ways, can be seen as real magician's tricks instead of tech flexing its muscle.

More importantly, The Day the Earth Stood Still blends all these elements -- intelligence, tension, and curious whimsy heightened by technological awe -- into a hour-and-a-half of significant science-fiction entertainment that'll trump the effort of most modern films remotely in the same spectrum of genre. It's an important picture, especially during a time when tension has been mounted by the brewing, highly publicized threats of war and violence against each other. Even in a time when the efforts from science-fiction works like Forbidden Planet and the Star Trek television series have begun to show some significant rust, the seminal energy brooding in this '50s classic still stands as crisp and clean as Gort standing in front of his stunned onlookers. That's the sign of why The Day the Earth Stood Still is a truly great film -- the fact that you can pick it up more than fifty years later and it's still as polished and noteworthy as the day it was minted.


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