#237. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

Kinda like with musicals and romantic comedies, especially from the 1930s, I’m coming to this sub-genre of 1950s science fiction (I do think it’s fair to say of these genres that they have subgenres belonging to certain decades), with its attendant androids and space monsters and laser beams, thinking I knew what I was getting into and also that it’d be (1) kinda complicated and (2) not my cuppa tea.

            But, as with most things, I was wrong about this.

            I knew of The Day the Earth Stood Still mainly as like one of the seminal pieces of Cold War sci-fi horror, charmingly low-tech and clever and sincere, and but I think that watching it through the lens of its cultural milieu, and the atomic anxieties it’s manifesting, is a disservice to the movie. It’s more than just a portrait of its time or a footnote in the story of Cold War America. It’s also just a really good movie.

            A spaceship lands in Washington D.C. with a a tall handsome dude aboard it named Klaatu (Michael Rennie). He’s also got a tall silver android with him, something like a bodyguard or space cop, named Gort. Klaatu’s super magnanimous upon exiting the ship but, surrounded by a bunch of tense soldiers, ends up getting shot when he holds out this tube thing that looks like a weapon but turns out to be a tool.     

           So our handsome alien man is taken to the hospital, where he basically heals himself, and then the army puts him under lock and key somewhere—which is frustrating as a viewer, cuz we just saw the near-fatal consequences of the army’s excessive caution, and also cuz we’re inclined to trust this alien when he says that he comes in peace…but I’d probably order the same thing if I was president.

           But whatever: Klaatu escapes the military facility. Runs off into the ‘burbs and uses otherworldly diamonds to pay for a room in a boarding house, and while we learn more about the reasons for his visit (he’s here to caution humanity about the current trajectory of its arms race), Klaatu, in turn, learns more about humanity. The people lodging him start showing him around town. He goes to Arlington Cemetery and marvels at all the people who’ve been undone by war. Then he meets a brilliant professor played by Sam Jaffe—and holy shit do I love Sam Jaffe.

this guy, Sam Jaffe, an American actor of Russian descent.

            I talked in the essay about Pandora and the Flying Dutchman about how James Mason and Ava Gardner, to different degrees and in different ways, did such good jobs at playing scoundrels that it actually kinda soured my impression of them as people. The inverse happened with Sam Jaffe. He plays such a lovably avuncular criminal mastermind in The Asphalt Jungle, the sorta old pappy you’d love to have dinner with, that I can’t really see him as anything else now.

            And he’s just as lovable here as an old professor with frazzly hair, one of the few people to believe in Klaatu’s beneficence.

            Klaatu seems to understand that humans are insanely violent and so he tells Helen (Patricia Neal), his landlord and partner in crime, that if something should happen to him that she’s gotta go to Gort, the aforementioned space cop, and say the words “klaatu barada niktu” or else Gort’ll destroy the planet in retaliation.

            I’m reading around about the movie and keep seeing that line referred to as one of the most famous bits of dialogue in all of science fiction. I also realized, in retrospect, that it’s also the incantation that Ash Williams (Bruce Campbell) has to call out in Army of Darkness, a movie I tried really hard to love when I was a kid but could never manage.

            What struck me throughout, and still heartens me (especially in the wake of seeing Avengers: Endgame this weekend), is how willfully simple this movie is. Yes it was the early 1950s and special effects weren’t capable of very much by today’s standards, but I’m convinced they were capable of more than this. Klaatu’s space uniform looks like something my grandmother would have bought at a thrift store and then never worn because she couldn’t find a good enough occasion. The menacing Gort could have been wreathed in lights or given some high-tech merchandisable space gun.

            A lot more could have been done here. Even Things to Come looks more technologically advanced than this.

            But director Robert Wise (aptly named) is here to tell a story, to communicate an idea and move on. And he gets the job done.

            Now, the fact that this movie really is probably mostly about its ideology does sort of make it an early cinematic example of what Bret Easton Ellis is deriding about today’s movies, and which I kind of agree with, which is the scourge of “ideology over aesthetics,” where a movie is so conscious of its own politics that the art suffers. Something I’m not yet sure of: is the virtue signaling in modern movies more about the studio and filmmaker trying to cover their asses, or because a huge portion of American moviegoers literally won’t allow themselves to enjoy or pay attention to a piece of art that doesn’t endorse their values?

            I know it’s a bit of a hazard that I’m letting Ellis serve such an influential role in my life but here’s one more thing about him: back at that Books & Books event, where he was talking on stage with Rene Rodriguez, he got to talking about a movie from the ‘70s, I forget what it’s called, where the most artistically redemptive aspect (according to Ellis) is its ambiguity in the sense that you couldn’t tell where the filmmaker stood, ethically, in relation to the violence or the characters’ politics or whatever. The viewer was invited to figure it out for herself. The movie was allowed to mean different things for different people rather than declaring, in no unclear terms, its politics.

           Most movies, particularly commercial stuff, have no business being ambiguous, ethically or otherwise, and I’m totally not saying that The Day the Earth Stood Still is in any way deficient or manipulative for being crystal clear about where it stands. It seems, in fact, pretty magnanimous in its portrait of human barbarity. I haven’t seen the 2008 remake but I’m inclined to think that, were it made today, there’d be a clear distinction between right-wing aggressors and sensible left-wing pacifists.

            Here, in Wise’s version, the narrative attitude seems to be something along the lines of “forgive them, father.”

            It’s a good time.


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