The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) dir. Robert Wise
Starring: Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal, Hugh Marlowe, Sam Jaffe
If you didn’t know already Robert Wise’s seminal sci-fi picture gets an update this week with the Keanu Reeves/Scott Derrickson version. The original film which tells the story of an alien who arrives to earth with a message of peace is, with today's eyes, perhaps too simplistic to stimulate any complex intellectual thought, but it’s still a benchmark in science fiction cinema. And with the help of Robert Wise's solid direction, Michael Rennie's iconic performance and Bernard Herrmann's gorgeous score, this original film is still highly watchable.
In the opening scene American military spots an unidentified flying object hurdling toward earth. Alarm bells go off everywhere and the army convenes on the Washington mall to greet it. Out of this a classic cylindrical UFO walks a humanoid person, Klaatu (Michael Rennie). But when a triggerhappy soldier shoots Klaatu he’s sent to the hospital.
Klaatu’s mission which he explains to the President of the United States is to convene the leaders of the earth to inform them of their irresponsibility with the new nuclear technology. Unfortunately the bureaucracy involved with bringing the countries together frustrates Klaatu. So he decides to wander out into regular society and learn about these strange new people. He rooms with the Benson family and befriends their young boy Bobby (Billy Gray) and his mother Helen (Patricia Neal). When the military discover he’s missing he’s perceived as a threat which creates a conflict thus threatening the entire human race.
In this classic studio era, science fiction was perceived as a b-movie genre, films intended for children and matinees. Wise, directing from Edmund North’s screenplay based on Harry Bates’ novel, intellectualizes the science as a means to examine our own social and political frailties. With today’s eyes the lessons taught could be perceived and obvious and on the nose. Indeed there’s little subtlety in Wise’s objective.
Unlike other remakes, there’s much more room to open up the story and explore the other details and subplots which emerge in this early version. We don’t learn much about the alien species other than Klaatu’s mission, nor about how he can assume the form of a human. Klaatu’s relationship with the Benson family is well-drawn but Wise inexplicably characterizes the scientist, government and military with little imagination.
Wise’s skills as director are apparent though. The Klaatu character, who is initially drawn as a benevolent alien changes ever so slightly revealing a devious and dangerous side in the second half. The final act is anchored by a suspenseful chase with the fate of the earth hanging the balance. When Helen assumes responsibility for Klaatu’s mission those famous words are finally spoken: Klaatu Barada Nikto.
And if Wise was unsure about his message he tells it to us again, with his very literal public service announcement voiceover closing the film: Your choice is simple: "Join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration. We shall be waiting for your answer. The decision rests with you.”
Watching old genre films like this requires a filter for the era, as audience became more sophisticated the meaning of this final statement would go between the lines. There’s hope for Scott Derrickson’s new version to better the Robert Wise version. “The Day the Earth Stood Still” is not meant to be a franchise, so let’s hope the producers will settle on and deliver one good film.
"The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)" is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment