MPAA Rating: NR/ Genre: Sci-Fi/ Stars: Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal, Hugh Marlowe, Sam Jaffe, Billy Gray, Frances Bavier, Lock Martin/ Runtime: 92 minutes
I think it is safe to say that if you were to ask a group of film reviewers what, in their mind, was the best known and best received film of the sci-fi genre from that era known as the 1950s you would not be surprised to see The Day the Earth Stood Still at the very top or near the very top of that list. The reason I say that dear reader is because this is a slice of cinematic pie which has over the years proven itself to be quite the synchronous mixing together of every single thing that this truly iconic film genre can do right and in the process conjures up a riveting narrative that manages to both thrill the mind and delight the heart in all the right ways. Indeed when one chooses to look past the simplistic yet engaging visual effects work, the phenomenal lead roles, the top-notch helmsmanship, the spine-tingling score, and the extremely well-written script, they see that this is a movie which is quite socially aware and manages to actually offer a morality tied directly into the pitfalls of the time in which it was made and first released. Thus this is a film which is not only a look at the very soul of the sci-fi genre, but it is also the film that many film reviewers, myself included, would point to as one of the pinnacles of this truly storied genre, not only within the era in which it was made, but also in the entirety of the genre. Yes Metropolis, Star Wars, the original Godzilla, and 2001: A Space Odyssey among a handful of others can also claim this and rightfully so, but this is still one of the most influential films that this genre of film has managed to give audiences and in the process entertained them and left them something to think about for decades.
The plot is as follows: One seemingly normal day in the nation’s capital of the United States of America otherwise known as Washington D.C., the lives of the planet is seriously upended when a UFO lands on a grassy field of a baseball stadium. Out from within the craft steps a humanoid being in a space suit and who quickly identifies himself (?) as Klaatu. Yet what should have been a historic occasion soon leads to panic when Klaatu is accidentally shot and within minutes, a robot also emerges from the craft and promptly annihilates every bit of weaponry the soldiers that have surrounded the craft have on them. Thankfully we soon that Klaatu is able to recover from his injury whilst in the hospital though his desire to meet with the heads of state of the countries on this planet is swiftly denied. Thus, we soon see Klaatu sneak out of his room in the hospital to find an individual who would actually be willing to hear just why he has come to our planet. To that end, we soon Klaatu rent a room which results in him crossing paths with a woman by the name of Helen Benson and her son Bobby whom he comes to befriend, and from whom he learns a fair amount about the culture and history of life on this planet. Shortly thereafter we see Klaatu finally get a chance to meet with an academic of some renown by the name of Professor Barnhardt, and at long last reveal to him that his purpose for being here deals with the fact that his people are afraid of the peril that human beings may unleash on themselves and on other worlds thanks to their work in atomic research. Thus will our species listen to reason or will this wise and insightful alien continue to be seen as a menace thus proving him right and in the process hinting towards the eventual annihilation of humanity? Guess you will have to watch and find out for yourself…..
Now a key thing that really manages to distinguish this film from a lot of other movies period is its direct style of presentation. Indeed no time is drained by introducing audiences to either characters who don’t matter or to story elements which will simply add next to nothing to the overall narrative at play. Instead every single shot, scene, and character that we are given all help to add to the overall narrative and just quality of the film in general whilst also giving us moments that are both iconic and expertly filmed. A key example of this that comes to mind is when Klaatu at one point walks into a home that is offering a room for rent whilst the people who live there, unaware he is behind them, cuddle up close around their TV and absorbing the latest on this eerie spaceship and the extraterrestrial visitors inside it. Indeed it this contrast between both the family and the humanoid extraterrestrial which helps to make this not only an intriguing scene, but also a riveting point in the film that will be the catalyst for a series of events that might just change the course of the history of mankind. Indeed suffice it to say then that film helmer Robert Wise’s helmsmanship really does serve as a wonderful example for how film helming can be done well especially when it’s film helming that not only does not devoid the characters or the narrative of emphasis, but also for how it manages to permit everything that makes this film work to come together in synchronicity without adding any trivial or unnecessary ingredients into the mix.
To that end, it should be noted that the vast majority of the film and a lot of its key moments and bits of dialogue all do a wonderful job of strengthening the main narrative. Indeed so well-constructed is the narrative that multiple viewings as well as critical looking over the film like I am just simply manages to showcase just how complexly intelligent this film is despite being presented to us as simply as possible. Indeed there really isn’t that much mystery to the narrative especially when you see that Klaatu has been sent to talk to humanity about the perils of aggression. A fact that is perhaps a tad bit ironic when you see this being met throughout the entirety of the film with that very emotional response thus simply managing to strengthen his conviction in the belief that mankind “substitutes fear for reason.” Not only that, but every single time he attempts to start up a discussion that needs to be had, he is answered with either violence or flimsy excuses for why this discussion cannot be had. Suffice it to say then that the anti-combat, anti-atomic bomb message is one that is never shielded from the audience to the extent that even the film’s dialogue is direct and never strays from that particular message with perhaps one of the more direct examples, for me growing up anyway, is when Bobby, in response to Klaatu telling him that on his planet there is no armed conflict, says “geez, that is a good idea!” Ultimately however, by the conclusion of the film you as the movie viewer are the one who is left to think for yourself about what kind of impact this otherworldly visit has had and figure out for yourself just what, if any, fallout further aggression of this nature could one day have. Not just on your own life, but the life of every living being on this planet as well.
Now in addition to the rousing triumph of its direct and forward manner of storytelling, it also doesn’t hurt that this film is just plain entertaining as well as a marvel from a technical perspective as well. Indeed take note movie lovers for this is the kind of engaging cinema where every scene you witness simply manages to leave anxious to see what happens next. Not only that, but the film is in equal measure frightening yet riveting as it manages to offer you, the viewer some truly riveting edge of your seat suspense whilst also operating as an engaging dramatic effort. Another thing that is truly phenomenal about this film is the cast that they have managed to assemble for this iconic film. Indeed, in the lead role, Michael Rennie is truly amazing as Klaatu, the humanoid extraterrestrial whose purpose for being here and whose vast power is complimented wonderfully only by an attitude that is equal parts calm, cool, and very much in control. Yet it also through Rennie’s performance that Klaatu not only becomes all the more spine-tingling especially when we find out why he is here, but yet also in an odd way, due to his bond with Bobby and the more time he spends on Earth, more human as well. Also giving us top-flight performances in this are a game supporting cast including Hugh Marlowe, Patricia Neal, Sam Jaffe, and Billy Gray thus making for one heck of a film from an acting standpoint. Also this film is one that manages to do an amazing job with simplistic yet quite riveting visual effects work which not only lead credibility to the tale being told, but also add a bit of style to an otherwise very dramatic movie. Finally this film also manages to possess quite the effective score, brought to us by none other than composing icon Bernard Herrmann. Indeed Herrmann’s score in this is equal parts soothing, spine-tingling, and alluring with particular regard to the novel sound of a Theremin giving us what is one of the more iconic scores in a Science Fiction film.
All in all it pleases me to tell you dear reader that, 5+ decades after its initial release, The Day the Earth Stood Still is still a top-notch iconic slice of cinematic pie both in the world of sci-fi and in regards to movie magic as a whole. Indeed here is a movie which represents the genre of science fiction like seldom others can and in the process conjuring up in the movie goer a feeling of awe, but also showcasing a very socially aware message that is still relevant to this day thus ensuring that this film is both as engaging and timely now as it was when first released. Indeed even though this film’s remake from 2008 did do decent at the box office amidst a score of negative reviews, I feel we still find ourselves questioning just where the future will take one of the most iconic genres of movie magic in existence, and one which gives the audience a form of magic rarely seen whilst also helping us to better comprehend the world as it was, as it is, and ultimately how it could potentially become. Yet no matter where this genre may choose to go be it in the next 10, 20, or even 50 years, I take comfort in the fact that at least movie lovers like you and me dear reader will always have timeless films like this to adore, to hold dear, and to think about just where as avid lovers of cinema have ventured to so that way we have an idea on where we might like to go next. On a scale of 1-5 I give The Day the Earth Stood Still “51” a solid 5 out of 5.