Lively, entertaining reviews of, and essays on, old and newer films and everything relating to them, written by professional author William Schoell.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951)

"Gort" and Patricia Neal
THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951). Director: Robert Wise.

Klaatu (Michael Rennie), an emissary from a group of united planets, arrives on earth in a large saucer, accompanied by a potentially destructive law enforcement robot named Gort. Klaatu has come to earth to warn the world that the other planets will not tolerate earthlings, who have recently discovered atomic power, bringing their violent aggressiveness into outer space. His solution if earth doesn't mend its ways: destroy the entire planet! [Talk about aggressiveness!]

Held prisoner by the military, Klaatu, who wants to learn earth ways, escapes and moves into a boarding house, where he meets the lovely widow, Helen (Patricia Neal) and her likable little boy, Bobby (Billy Gray). Once Helen discovers the truth about the mysterious visitor and his plan, you keep waiting for her to argue about all the good in the world, the notable doctors, scientists, artists, and to tell Klaatu that most of the world's wars are caused  by a mere handful of residents. You expect her to say "innocent children like my son will be killed along with the warmongers," but she never does. This is the major reason why I've never particularly cared for this "classic." While Helen and Bobby represent good earthlings, too much of this portrayal is distinctly negative and unfair.

One can imagine, of course, that none of the aliens really wish or intend to wipe out the billions of earth's inhabitants, but foolishly hope this warning might suffice. But surely these powerful aliens can simply deal with the spaceships of more aggressive nations instead of dooming every person on the earth? No one even suggests this much more sensible solution.

That being said, The Day the Earth Stood Still is modestly entertaining and thought-provoking, although probably not in the way the filmmakers intended. Michael Rennie offers perhaps his best performance as the enigmatic Klaatu, his face registering amusement or bafflement and suggesting a certain superiority without becoming obnoxious about it. Neal is warm and sympathetic, but probably wasted in this movie. Billy Gray [The Navy vs the Night Monsters], Hugh Marlowe (as Helen's fiance) and others all give good performances and Robert Wise's direction is fine. The film also boasts Leo Tover's [The Snake Pit] excellent cinematography, and a superb score by Bernard Herrmann, whose spooky, jangling music influenced dozens of later scores. [Tover and Herrmann also worked on Journey to the Center of the Earth] The film itself was also very influential, with Hugh Marlowe headlining Earth vs the Flying Saucers a few years later and many other aliens-visit-earth films to come.

One last troubling aspect to the movie: After an over-zealous soldier shoots Klaatu at the beginning of the film, Gort responds by disintegrating tanks and rifles, but doesn't injure any men. Later, however, he completely disintegrates two soldiers who weren't even firing at him! Klaatu explains at one point that Gort is like a policeman, apparently one who is as quick-to-shoot as that first soldier was. The two dead men, whose deaths were completely unnecessary, are never mentioned again. Most likely they were killed so that the audience could feel Helen was in danger when she goes to give Gort a command that will stop him from further action. Still ...

The Day the Earth Stood Still (the title refers to Klaatu suppressing all energy world wide as a demonstration of his power) was remade in 2008 with Keaua Reeves playing a variation of Klaatu. Kathy Bates played an aggressive secretary of defense. Despite some good performances and effects and a much higher body count, the movie was not really an improvement over the original, itself no masterpiece.

Verdict: A bit too simplistic and even childish at times, but Herrmann's score is great. **1/2.
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