The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
This review contains SPOILERS!
One of the monoliths of science fiction movies, "The Day the Earth Stood Still" is keenly invested in the time period and nationalistic crises of a post-WWII America. In the opening credits, we see the western hemisphere as we travel with the protagonist "invaders" as the camera plummets towards Earth and immediately we see the nervous and perhaps violent way that Americans (or perhaps humanity at large) treats the unknown. We are hyper-aware of the time period, not only because the central drive of the movie is warning others that atomic energy is a power that could be too great to contain; but also because the radio dominates people's consumption of the news and the general bleakness of a post-war film.
Klaatu (Michael Rennie) is a humanoid alien whose physiology is no different than our own. He has landed with an eight-foot tall metal robot named Gort and he claims to have an urgent message for the people of the world. By sheer coincidence, or for the sake of ease of the story, his ship lands in the middle of the mall in Washington, D.C. You can see the fear of the people around him when he first emerges from the spaceship, offering up a gift which is misinterpreted as a weapon and he is shot through the shoulder and ends up in a hospital.
Escaping custody, he meanders around the streets trying to get a better sense of these earthlings and rents a room where he meets Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) and her son Bobby (Billy Gray). He introduces himself as Mr. Carpenter (a name he found on the inside of the jacket he was wearing) and lodges with the Bensons and a few other quirky characters who nicely sum up the political climate of the day.
But all this time, we are waiting to hear his message, which is teased and dangled in front of the viewer until the very last scene of the movie when Klaatu stands in front of the camera and speaks to the audience, warning against violence and most of all, against atomic warfare.
This warning does not necessarily mean that humanity will, of its own free nature, become more moral, because it's clear that Klaatu and his people do not care what humans do to other humans. The warning is mostly that, should their warfare stray to interstellar territories, there will be no hesitation to wipe Earth out.
For someone watching over half a century later, this sentiment loses some of its charm. "Be good to us or we'll kill you!" But still, it's nice to see a film aware of these issues even if it is under the umbrella of its own nationalistic identity. We can see this when Bobby takes Klaatu to the cemetery to look at the gravestone of Bobby's dad, who died in the war. Then they stop at the Lincoln Memorial where Klaatu panders to the target audience and comments on what a great individual this person was. While perhaps justified, looking upon the Gettysburg address, Klaatu and Bobby quickly go back to the less patriotic story-line which concerns only the alien and his doings.
"The Day the Earth Stood Still" is maybe deceptively simple with a very clear message and a very easy narrative; but the words are the most important part. Another key factor to consider when watching the movie is that the only "major" award that it won was at the Golden Globes where it took home the prize for "Best Film Promoting International Understanding" a category that has been retired for over fifty years now. The international understanding of the film is less about the empathy of victims who had survived the atomic bomb and more about self-preservation when you view the film in a callous light.
A more optimistic approach would perhaps deify this "Carpenter" and his words of wisdom and teach the viewer that this is the only life we have to live, so why not minimize human suffering along the way? And for that, it's hard to critique the film.
Posted by Micah Jones